When American Evan Lysacek won figure skating gold at the 2010 Vancouver Games, some hailed it as a victory for artistry over acrobatics. Others shrieked in protest, arguing that crowning an Olympic champion who hadn’t performed the sport’s most difficult element — the quadruple jump — over a skater who had, Russia’s Evgeni Plushenko, set figure skating’s evolution back decades. In an essay objecting to the judging, former Canadian champion Elvis Stojko proclaimed it “The Night They Killed Figure Skating.”
Sadly, the highly anticipated reprise between Vancouver’s gold and silver medalists that was to unfold at the 2014 Sochi Games won’t come to pass. Lysacek, 28, announced in December that injury had forced him to abandon defense of his Olympic title; meantime, Plushenko, 31, appears to have been edged out by a younger rival in his quest for Russia’s lone men’s Olympic berth.
But the debate over the quad endures. And it’s expected to define the men’s competition in Sochi, where no credible medal contender dare step on the ice without a quad in his repertoire.
“Really, the men’s competition is quite a jump-fest now,” said three-time U.S. champion Johnny Weir, who will join NBC’s broadcast booth for next month’s Olympics. “Looking at the top 15 in men’s skating, there are men down to 10th and 11th place who are able to land one or more quads in competition. There’s a whole new level of technical ability that the men are showing just in the four years since Vancouver.”
Added Coach Audrey Weisiger, whose pupils include former U.S. champion Michael Weiss: “It’s now a requirement. You can’t be Olympic champion without a quad — in the long and the short.”
Whether the clamor for quads will produce an Olympic champion who truly marries athletic daring with artistic perfection is unclear. But it’s a virtual certainty that plenty of men will tumble in their attempt to pull off not just one but multiple quads in their gold-medal quest.
The quadruple jump, in which a skater performs four revolutions in the air, isn’t exactly revolutionary. It has been around since 1988, when Kurt Browning first executed one and has become a staple of medal-winning performances since.
But its significance has fluctuated according to the way judges have scored figure skating over the years. Today, the decision about whether to include a quad or multiple quads boils down to a cold calculation more than artistic statement: How many additional points a skater earns for attempting the difficult skill weighed against how many fractions of a point he loses for failing to fully rotate it, botching the landing or falling in an ungainly heap.
Heading into Sochi, the quad stands to eclipse all other story lines in men’s figure skating for reasons both practical and philosophical.
Weisiger laments that even the most sophisticated TV production can’t fully convey the physical and mental demands of the quad — or the physics that underpins it. So she takes a stab with words.
“Picture you’re on tight-wire, and you’re going at speeds of up to 20 miles per hour on that tight-wire on a thin blade,” Weisiger said. “And then you have to throw your body up in the air and successfully turn around four times and land back on that tight-wire, on that razor-thin blade. That’s what we’re talking about; that’s how hard it is.”
But because the best skaters make the impossible look effortless, the quad’s difficulty isn’t easily grasped or fully appreciated.
Tactically, executing the four-revolution jump amounts to hitting a points-jackpot. It’s one way that a terrific jumper who lacks artistic refinement can catapult himself into medal contention. Converted ice hockey player Max Aaron is a case in point, landing three quadruple jumps to win the 2013 U.S. Championships.
On a deeper level, the quad represents the outer limit of what’s physically possible in terms of figure skating jumps. Unless the greatest skaters compete at their limits and continue to push beyond them, the sport runs the risk of becoming a quaint anachronism.
As Plushenko famously brayed at the 2010 Games: “Without a quad, it’s not men’s figure skating.”
Regardless of the sport — whether figure skating or snowboarding, freestyle skiing or ski jumping — it’s the athlete’s quest to out-do past champions, rather than simply replicate their feats, that makes the Olympics so compelling.
But too much emphasis on executing quadruple jumps, or any combination of high-scoring jumps, can undercut the lyricism of a four-minute, 40-second free skate — particularly if those difficult elements are jammed into the end of a program, irrespective of the music, to cash in on bonus points awarded for late-stage rigor.
Needless to say, if a jump-fest turns into a crash-fest, it can be painful to watch.
That was part of the calculus Lysacek weighed in crafting his program for the 2010 Vancouver Games.
“When I watch skating, I like to see a clean program,” Lysacek said last fall, asked about the risks and rewards of the sport’s most difficult jump. “I like to see an athlete that has trained, is in control and executes one element after another. When I see people falling — making three, four, five mistakes in a program — it’s very hard for me to watch that.”
That’s partly why Aaron decided, after finishing seventh with his quad-laden long program at an international competition in November, to scale back to two quads, hoping to compensate for the points he’ll give up with better spins and artistic marks.
Back in 2010, Lysacek’s calculus paid off.
Even though Plushenko landed a quadruple toe-loop, triple toe-loop combination in his free skate, in the eyes of Olympic judges, Lysacek outperformed the Russian because his performance was a more elegant artistic statement, with his jumps linked by spins, intricate step sequences and graceful transitions.
For Weir, who finished sixth at the Vancouver Games, it took the passage of time before he was able to go back and study the gold and silver medal-winning performances on video. At the time, Weir explained, he was too mired in his own disappointment to watch exactly what Lysacek and Plushenko were showing the world.
A self-described “die-hard Plushenko fan,” dazzled by the Russian’s star power and pizazz, Weir says today that he feels the judges got it right in awarding gold to Lysacek.
“On the day of the free program, the better skater won,” Weir said. “Evan performed incredibly well. He was so precise, down to the last detail. Evan was just perfect that day.”
But looking ahead to Sochi, Weir predicts perfection won’t be enough.
“It’s going to take the man that can land more than one quad in the free program — combined with all the triple jumps and artistry and star-power on that day — to win the championship,” Weir said. “It’s definitely an exciting time for men’s figure skating.”