Figure skating expert Hannah Robbins discusses the dangers of quadruple jumps and the sacrifices the sport has made because of them.
According to the Olympics’ website, a quadruple jump is defined as a jump with at least four but less than five rotations. Conceptually, it’s a simple idea. Leave the ice, rotate 1,440 degrees, land on the ground. As of the 2018-2019 season, quadruple jumps are commonplace in men’s programs and have even entered the women’s competition. They look simple, beautiful even, but behind the beauty is a dangerous jump that we don’t quite understand. As skaters are attempting and completing quads at younger and younger ages, we should take a moment and consider the cost of completing a quad jump.
Why would skaters start attempting these jumps in programs? Simple: figure skating is, at its most basic level, a points game. Each skater can complete a certain number of jumping passes, spins, step sequences and other elements based on their discipline. Each element is assigned a technical value and a grade of execution (GOE) score. The grade of execution score is the average of between five and nine judges that look for positive or negative aspects of an element with GOE adding or subtracting up to half the value of the element from its technical (base) value.
Since skaters are only able to complete a certain number of elements per program, it makes sense that they would focus on getting the most value for each element possible. While the GOE and their confidence on being able to perform an element cleanly should always be considered, the math is almost always in favor of a more difficult element. A clean triple toe loop with a decent GOE is worth 5.25 points. Meanwhile, a quadruple toe loop where a skater struggles a bit but doesn’t fall is worth 7.13 points. Simple math.
Now some may ask why the quad fad is new if the math is in favor of more difficult jumps. The answer lies within the difficulty of the quad as a jump. Rotating four times in the air and landing on one foot is difficult; before 1988, no one had landed a verified quad, and it took until 2002 for a woman to land one. Even when landed, the trend did not catch on right away. As recently as 2010, both men and women’s Olympic champions did not include quadruple jumps in their program. After the controversy surrounding Evan Lysacek’s quadless win in 2010, it became a common sentiment that most competitive male skaters should have at least one quad in their pocket. It wasn’t until 2016 that all of the quadruple jumps (minus the quadruple axel, which has been attempted once in competition) were landed.
In the lead-up to the 2018 Olympics, most competitive skaters completed multiple quads a competition. After what is affectionately referred to as a spills-fest, as five of the top six skaters in the men’s short program at the 2018 World Championships fell multiple times, dropping over 15 places in some case, the International Skating Union tried to prevent the falls by allowing only one repeated quad per program instead of two and reducing the base values of quads by up to two points.
This hasn’t stopped anyone. Skaters are attempting quads younger and younger; Alexandra Trusova became the first woman to land a quad toe loop at 13, and Stephen Gogolev became the youngest person to land a quad toe, lutz and salchow in competition also at 13.
While the skaters are getting younger, the risks are still unknown. Since quads have not been attempted for that long, no one has been able to study what they do to the human body. It is estimated that the landing of a quadruple jump on one foot puts somewhere between seven to 10 times the weight of the human body on one foot, and the repetitive nature of practicing these jumps can cause microfractures in the right (landing) foot of skaters.
As the skaters attempting quads get younger, an entire generation of skaters are putting unknown amounts of stress on their bodies, and with the Russian junior ladies making quads commonplace, the pressure on the ladies field to include a quad is increasing. This pressure introduces an entirely new field of skaters to risks that will affect them longer than their careers on the ice.
While technically scores have decreased, the change in GOE this year means that a perfectly executed quad lutz is worth 17.25 points, up from 16.6 points last year. Higher risk means higher reward, and as skaters fight to stay relevant, they are willing to make that risk. Is it worth it?