Has Figure Skating Maxed Out In Difficulty?S

At the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver, American Evan Lysacek won the men's singles figure skating gold medal without a single quadruple jump, while Russia's Evgeni Plushenko, who did have a quad in his program, took home silver. Four years later, this sort of scenario never materialized: Every top male competitor in Sochi had a quad in his program. Some had more than one. Some did their quads in combination with other jumps. Nearly two decades after Canadian world champion Kurt Browning first performed it, the quad jump has become something of a requirement for any men's figure skater to make it onto a major international podium. So what's next frontier?

"I can't imagine anyone landing a quad axel," Timothy Goebel told me. Goebel was the 2002 Olympic bronze medalist who was nicknamed the "Quad King" during his career. He performed a long program with three quads and was the first American to land one in competition. A quad axel would entail an extra half turn over its other quad peers and a forward edge takeoff, which greatly ups the difficulty. "I just can't see it happening," he added. "I think five-revolution jumps are off the table. I just don't see it happening."

His implication was that we're approaching the edge of skaters' technical capabilities. If the quad really is the end of the line in terms of jumping difficulty, what would that mean for the sport?


In 1984, American Scott Hamilton, now an excitable figure commentator for NBC, won Olympic gold without a triple axel (though others on the Olympic podium that year performed the three-and-half-revolution jump). Hamilton defeated Canada's Brian Orser, who'd won both the short and free skates, on the strength of his figures. The discipline is now a faint and faintly ridiculous relic of a distant era, but the basic concept was simple enough: Skaters would make etchings in the ice with their blades.

Figures demanded strong edges and knees, steady nerves, and two days of rink time at major international competitions for performance and evaluation. But it was boring. TV hated figures. Spectators didn't want to buy tickets to this event. Also, figures opened the door for cheating. Judges promoted their favorites and held others back, precisely because the discipline was so abstruse and never subjected to the scrutiny of a TV audience. Janet Lynn was the best skater of her time but relatively weak at figures and could never win the gold. People thought that she lost gold at the 1972 Winter Olympics when she fell during the long program, but in reality she'd lost it during figures. On the other hand, Peggy Fleming, the sweetheart of 1968, had weak skates in the short and long, but was so far ahead in points from figures that it basically didn't matter what she did in the televised competition.

Figures were last held at the 1990 world championships. Almost immediately, the impact of their elimination was felt. Kristi Yamaguchi, who had never been good at figures, won golds at the 1991 world championships and the 1992 Olympics. Midori Ito, the first woman to execute a triple axel, placed second behind Yamaguchi in Albertville. (Ito was also the 1989 world champion on the strength of her triple axel.)

Time spent on figures—up to four hours a day—was now used to develop jumps and other parts of the skating performance. Nowadays, skaters spend three or four hours on the ice and do the rest of their preparation off the ice. They begin mastering the difficult jumps from a young age.

Ito was also the first woman to compete a triple-triple jump combination back in 1982, when she was just a junior skater. Both of her feats—the triple-triple combo and the triple axel—remain the outer limit of jumping difficulty when it comes to women's figure skating.

It seems that the women's jumps have plateaued since the days of Ito. In the '90s, France's Surya Bonaly did attempt a quadruple toe loop but never landed it in competition. She also performed a back flip on the ice, a move that is now illegal in figure skating. (But it sure was badass.) Famously, Tonya Harding became the first American woman to do a triple axel, a feat repeated by a handful of other women since, including current contender Mao Asada. But it's really that triple-triple combo, introduced more than 30 years ago, that is the make-or-break move for today's ladies singles skaters. Those who can't do it have virtually no shot at the podium.

So why have the women stagnated when it comes to jumping? Puberty is a limiting factor for many female skaters, some of whom never completely regain their form and jumps after going through their growth spurts. After all, they'd learned their most difficult jumps in what was essentially a different body, and now they have to spend valuable time relearning or adjusting their technique. And relearn they must since there are only seven triples to choose from, and every competitive program on the women's side makes use of each one. Unless you're Olympic champion Yuna Kim, you cannot opt out of any of the triples.

The men, on the other hand, take a much more linear path up the scale of difficulty. For them, puberty is an asset.

In 1986, just two years after Hamilton's triple axel-less gold, Jozef Sabovcik landed a quad toe loop at the 1986 European championships, but it was invalidated three weeks later because his free foot had touched down. And in 1988, Browning performed his quad toe loop at the world championships, a feat that has been ratified and remains in the record books. His fellow Canadian, Elvis Stojko, became the first skater to do the quad in combination in the mid '90s. Yet the quad was not becoming the norm, at least not yet.

Has Figure Skating Maxed Out In Difficulty?

But in 2002—the last Olympics that used the old "perfect 6" scoring system—every one of the medalists performed a quad. In fact, there were several skaters down in the rankings who performed at least one of these jumps in at least one of their programs, if not in both.

Goebel credits different jump technique and better training methods for the spread of the quad. "If you watched how people jumped in the '60s, '70s, '80s versus now, skaters rotate more efficiently," he said. Back in the earlier eras, skaters would get more height on some of their jumps and start the revolutions later in the flight arc. (You can't really do both—get height and wrap in twists—at the same time. McKayla Maroney, the female vaulter who gets more air than anyone else, doesn't really start twisting until she's almost at her peak height off the table.)

"It used to be in style for people to do these really big jumps where you float on the way up and rotate on the way down," Goebel said. "Now everyone is getting into the rotation a lot faster." This means that skaters start wrapping in the revolutions immediately after takeoff.

"I didn't jump nearly as high as a lot of my peers that did quads," he said, "but I rotated so much faster because I got into the rotation quicker."

Though the competition was full of quads in 2002, 2010 was a different story. Lysacek won—scandalously, according to some—without the most difficult jumping element in the men's repertoire. The reason was the new scoring system, which discouraged skaters from attempting a quad unless they had very secure, very consistent jumps.

The problem, according to Goebel, was that the values of the jumps were assigned based on a linear rather than on an exponential progression. A quad was valued more highly than a triple jump, but not in a way that reflected the actual difference in difficulty between the two. "It made it less desirable for people to do it because it wasn't worth that many more points," he said. "The way the rules were at that point, it was very punitive if you missed. If you hit it, it was of nominal benefit. If you missed it, it was catastrophic."

Goebel also cautioned against thinking of the quad singly. It's one element among many that make up a program. To do a program with a quad, footwork, spins, and seven other triple jumps is far more exhausting—both mentally and physically—than doing the same without the vaunted jump.

"Doing a program with triples versus doing a program with seven triples and a quad, the program is a lot harder. It's not a comparable scale," he said.

After 2010, the International Skating Union created a bigger spread between the triples and the quads. They also granted intermediate values—if you did a quad but it wasn't all that good, you at least got partial credit. It wasn't a complete loss. This has encouraged more skaters to compete with quads in their programs.

But if we shouldn't think of the quad jumps singly, as an isolated trick, the same can be said for the rest of the skating program. After all, there are other forms of difficulty in skating and they're all taxing. Plushenko pulled off a quad four years ago, but in terms of footwork and artistry, he seemed to rely on athleticism and personal charisma to carry the day. The other elements of his skating are not nearly as impressive (or as tiring) as his jumps.

The dizzying spins, spiral sequences, and the intricate footwork are all very hard, but deceptively so. Audiences tend to associate difficulty with risk. When skaters launch into their jumps, we hold our breath and wonder if they'll land upright. We don't, however, expect to see skaters fall on a spin or trip over their feet during footwork regardless of how hard or highly valued a particular spin might be. (Although it can happen: Ashley Wagner fell on her twizzle sequence turning on her non-dominant leg at last year's world championships.)

All of these "hidden" forms of difficulty are also consuming to learn and exhausting to perform. And under the new skating rules, every bit of the footwork and every revolution of the spins are appraised. They simply cannot be neglected in order to deflect more time and endurance into the jump portion of the program.

Between the incentives of the scoring system and the exhausted physical capabilities of the athletes, figure skating seems to have achieved an equilibrium. It is unlikely that more time devoted to jump development would yield much in terms of positive results. Asking a skater to upgrade from four to five revolutions would be the equivalent of asking a gymnast to go from a double back to a triple back—an exponential increase in difficulty and risk. (Only a handful of male gymnasts have ever performed a triple back and at present, none is doing it.)

It's not just that athletes cannot do these maneuvers—it's that even training them offers little wiggle room for mistakes. During an interview with Gymcastic, U.S. gymnastics team physician Dr. Larry Nassar pointed to the "narrowing of the margin of error" when it comes to performing increasingly difficult skills. "We're already at the limit of what the human body can structurally sustain if you're mechanically off," he noted. "You can't be off. That's when the forces become multi-factorially higher."

As you attempt to wrap in more twists on flips, the chances of landing short of rotation, still twisting in the ground, increases. And for a lot of gymnasts, that means a torn ACL. (Case in point: Russian superstar Aliya Mustafina in 2011.)

Skaters mostly learn jumps off ice in harnesses and on surfaces more forgiving than ice. But once they take these elements to the ice, they are in for a world of pounding. Skaters come down on their landing leg with a force equivalent to eight times their body weight. Hitting a jump, even according to textbook technique, can be injurious.

And since the learning process is rarely smooth and inevitably entails a lot of falls, some moves are simply too risky to train regularly. Goebel talked about the difference about being off on a triple versus a quad. "You have to be so on [with a quad]," he said. "Timing, height, speed going in—everything has to be in such a narrow parameter." With triple jumps, he could make adjustments midair if something were off. But if anything went awry on his quad, he knew he was going down. The margin of error on that jump is razor-thin to nonexistent.

Skaters who were known for quads often end up having to undergo back and hip surgeries at relatively young ages. 2002 Olympic gold medalist Alexei Yagudin had a titanium hip joint implanted in 2007. That Plushenko returned to competition after undergoing several spinal and hip surgeries since the last Olympics is nothing short of miraculous. (He's only 31.) That he had to bow out on Thursday after aggravating a back injury is anything but a surprise.


So have we maxed out jumping difficulty in figure skating?

"I feel relatively confident saying that we're close," said Goebel, though he believes innovation is still possible with quad combinations. "I don't think it's maxed out yet, but we're getting close. I can't imagine someone going out and doing six or seven quads in a program. Physically, training-wise, injury-wise—I think it's a little bit beyond what people are capable of doing."

In game-based sports, this wouldn't be an existential issue. The question is not one of innovation, of pushing the envelope, but of winning on a given day. Sure, we all like records—for good or for bad—but evolution isn't necessarily seen as essential to those sports. A basketball fan isn't preoccupied with how many points his team scores in Game 6 of the NBA finals. He's concerned with whether his team scores more than the other team. It's all about the win.

For sports that are built around the idea of continuous progress, the end of progress might be troublesome. We expect track stars to break world records, swimmers to shave thousandths of seconds off their times, gymnasts to keep adding flips and twists. They're competing against history—both their own and their sport's—as surely as they're competing against each other.

Gymnastics has encouraged this expectation by constantly telling the story of increasing difficulty, which in part, explains the absence of the previous Olympics' stars from competition. The impression given is that they've been left in the dust by youngsters who can tumble circles around them.

Figure skating, on the other hand, hasn't been telling this exact story. True, the media hype the newest skaters off the boards—the younger, the better. But the development of jumps over the decades has been slow enough to stymie expectations of ever-increasing jump difficulty. And since most of the skaters have the same basic tools in their toolboxes—especially the women—the competitors are outstripped by their rivals, not by the sport itself. Figure skating doesn't change radically from cycle to cycle, the way gymnastics seems to.

Goebel doesn't view the end of technical difficulty's forward march as a crisis for the sport. "I don't think it takes anything away from it," he said. "Everyone has their own style. Everyone has a unique way of doing a trick—some people spin really fast, some go higher."

Dave Lease, co-founder of The Skating Lesson, pointed out that the roots of the sport are in those now obsolete figures. "It wasn't jump obsessed," he said. The jumps, he continued, were "meant to be highlights, but obviously that is no longer the reality. It is about jumps."

Dick Button, the first man to perform a triple jump all the way back in 1952 (and author of the splendidly titled memoir Push Dick's Buttons), has lamented that the sport has turned into "figure jumping." He'd probably welcome the end of this sort of development.

Perhaps as figure skating approaches the edge of what the athletes can do in the air, the focus will return to what they can do on the ground. The sport, emphasizing the first half of its name, will revert to the elements on the ice—the edges, the footwork, the artistry, and the performance.


Dvora Meyers is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Slate, Tablet and elsewhere. She writes about gymnastics and Judaism at Unorthodox Gymnastics, and she is the author of Heresy on the High Beam: Confessions of an Unbalanced Jewess. She blogs about woman-y stuff over at The Anti-Girlfriend.

Infographic by Reuben Fischer-Baum. Top image by Jim Cooke.