Athleticism Over Artistry? The Jump Obsession in Men’s Figure Skating


Earlier this January, I was watching the men’s singles event in the US Figure Skating Championships on television. I was flabbergasted when the commentator said that Nathan Chen’s free skate performance fell short of expectations.

His winning routine featured five successful quadruple jumps, including two quad flips, or jumps launched from the inside back edge of the skate. However, the commentator was disappointed by the absence of a quad Lutz—a marginally more difficult jump from the outside back skate edge. Chen had previously regularly included two in his routines. Currently, Chen and Uno Shōma of Japan are the only two skaters in the world to have successfully landed a quad flip in international competition. And Chen had landed two, so I could not see his performance as subpar.

It makes me wonder when people started thinking like this about figure skating.

Something Missing?

To perform his five quad jumps, Chen had to rein in his naturally smooth skating and cool expression on the ice. I was shocked that the commentator did not mention this, instead choosing to focus on the “missing” quad Lutz jumps.

Are quad jumps now all that are worth watching? Do we simply count how many of each type are completed to see who wins? When did men’s figure skating become this kind of competition?

A week and a half remains until the 2018 Winter Olympic Games begin in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Much speculation surrounds the men’s singles figure skating competition. Rather than who will win, however, I am more interested in the manner of his victory.

The 2017 World Figure Skating Championships showed a startlingly high standard in which all three of the medalists—Hanyū Yuzuru, Uno, and China’s Jin Boyang—completed four quad jumps and two triple axels. The winner in Pyeongchang is likely to be either one of this trio or Chen, who struggles with triple axels, but can perform five quads.

If the favorites fail in their multiple quad routines, however, there is a chance for skaters like Javier Fernández of Spain, Patrick Chan of Canada, and Mikhail Kolyada of Russia. These athletes do not perform as many quad jumps, but display a superb level of artistry and stability.

On the other hand, there are skaters who can match the best at quads, but are poorly regarded for their basic performance and expression, such as the American Vincent Zhou and the Russian Alexander Samarin. If they complete all their quads, they could capitalize on others’ failures and enter contention.

I hope to see all skaters performing to the best of their ability at the Olympics. I really do not want to see a succession of underperforming quad routines. But I am more worried about a winner being rewarded for the brilliance of his four or five perfect quad jumps, while physical expression that harmonizes artistically with the music is entirely ignored.

What We Lose by Emphasizing Athleticism

Hanyū, Chen, and the other skaters completing a variety of quad moves are certainly not merely jumpers. To reach the international elite, they have also displayed rare levels of skating technique and expression. If they think solely about making as many jumps as possible, however, they will lose out in other areas. Focusing all their attention and physical energy on quads will leave the rest of their program empty, with the accompaniment that should be an integrated part of the performance becoming nothing more than background music. Even if that is not their intent, the pressure of multiple quad jumps will lead to this result. Limiting themselves to just a couple of quads would allow them to display the full range of their talents. But they are likely to push themselves to the limit in the quest for Olympic gold, ultimately sacrificing everything else to jumping.

If a competitor wins with an explosive display of quad jumps, in line with current rules, it will have a powerful impact. Audiences around the world may, however, think that men’s figure skating is only about demonstrating a series of leaps.

Reports indicate that the International Skating Union is considering lowering the base score for quads after the Pyeongchang Olympics. This may reduce the focus on these most difficult of jumps. But the idea that a performance without a quad Lutz is incomplete is already spreading. Some say that a quintuple era is coming. It is a sad state of affairs for figure skating fans who enjoy the splendor and artistry of all-around performances.

Making Memories

In the end, though, eras are defined not by rules, but by athletes. Their burning desire to show what they can do influences the next generation of skaters. This year’s Olympic performances will act as a guide for the next four years.

As a long-term figure skating aficionado, I hope that rather than how many quad jumps were achieved, we will look back on an unforgettable performance in Pyeongchang.

In the first half of the 2017–18 season, many skaters pulled out all the stops in multiple-quad programs. The most memorable two performances, though, only had one or two quad jumps. These were by Sergei Voronov of Russia in the NHK Trophy competition in November 2017 and Mura Takahito of Japan in the Japan Figure Skating Championships in December.

For the 30-year-old Voronov, a four-and-a-half minute program was physically tough, even with only two quad jumps. At the end of his free skate, he collapsed on the ice. He had demonstrated his innate qualities in a very masculine performance to “Sarabande Suite” and was rewarded with his first victory in a Grand Prix event. His determination to stake a claim to an Olympic place, despite being relatively old for a skater, attracted genuine acclaim.

At 27, Mura also made what was probably his last Olympic bid. He gave an unforgettable performance in the Japan Championships. Renowned highly as a jumper, he said that if he were 19 or 20, he would have done his best to meet the demands of the age of quads. However, in this case he limited himself to a single quad jump, playing to his strengths while throwing himself into a program based around “Phantom of the Opera.” Mura displayed all he had learned in 20 years of skating in a strong-willed program.

Unfortunately, neither Voronov nor Mura was selected to appear in the Olympics. Yet their performances will remain in the memory of skating fans.

After Pyeongchang?

Voronov’s and Mura’s programs shout out to the competitors vying for the Pyeongchang crown, telling them that figure skating is about more than just jumping. But with everyone thinking so hard about the quads, their appeal may not be heard.

Athletes like Uno, Fernández, and Chan are more focused on the innate qualities of skating than quad jumps. Will they be able to complete the leaps in their intricately prepared programs?

Meanwhile, Hanyū, Chen, and Jin will probably prioritize quads in their routines. How much will they have to suppress their own inherent qualities?

No matter who wins, I firmly hope that his performance will be such as to usher in a new era for men’s solo figure skating.

(Originally published in Japanese on January 24, 2018. Banner photo: Hanyū Yuzuru performing his free skate routine at the ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating 2017 in Moscow, Russia, on October 21, 2017. © Sakamoto Kiyoshi/Aflo.)

Olympics figure skating Hanyū Yuzuru