At the start of the men’s figure skating final that aired on Friday night, Nathan Chen had been all but left for dead. The American figure skating prodigy had skated an abysmal short program, a fall-laden disaster that left him in 17th place with a paltry 82.27 points—almost 30 behind leader Yuzuru Hanyu. It was a shocking result for the 18-year-old Chen, who has twice won the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. “He just looked so tentative, nervous. You could see it in his eyes,” said NBC commentator Tara Lipinski. Chen, who had also faltered while performing his short program during the figure skating team event, looked stunned when he spoke to NBC’s Andrea Joyce. “Just rough again. Still need some time to think about it,” he said. “But … I mean … it happens, I guess, so … just try to move on from here.”
Chen moved on in a big way. In his free skate, he showed the world why he’d been expected to contend for gold—and, in the process, illuminated the controversy that’s raised fundamental questions about what figure skating is and should aspire to be. Chen landed five clean quadruple jumps on six attempts—both Olympic records—on his way to earning 215.08 points. That score, the highest of the night and a personal best for Chen, vaulted him back into medal contention. (He ultimately finished in fifth place.) “Nathan Quad—Nathan Chen—is still the quad king. He was planning five quads. He did six. That is so gutsy under so much pressure. He really should be named Nathan Quad,” gushed Lipinski.
It’s a fitting nickname for a man whose jumping prowess has fundamentally changed his sport—and not necessarily for the better. Just like analytically minded NBA franchises have transformed basketball by eschewing two-point shots for three-pointers, math-conscious male skaters have rushed to incorporate valuable quadruple jumps—which require an athlete to complete four separate mid-air rotations before landing—into their routines. In the words of the New York Times’ Jeré Longman, critics of the quad-ification of figure skating say “today’s system favors a scavenger hunt for points over artistic expression and gives short shrift to other appealing aspects of the sport like choreography, footwork, flair, and a sense of theater.”
Whether you like it or not, it’s inarguable that if you want to win on the sport’s biggest stage, you have to attempt and land as many quads as possible. Japan’s Hanyu, who won his second consecutive men’s figure skating gold medal in Pyeongchang, performed a beautiful routine that surely satisfied artistically minded skating fans. But Hanyu also attempted four quads, two of which received perfect grade of execution scores. If Chen hadn’t botched his short program, Hanyu would’ve needed every one of those quads to fend off the American for gold.
Chen is the best quad jumper in figure skating history, which gives him a significant advantage over the rest of the field. As I wrote earlier this week, the International Skating Union’s scoring system values quads more highly than any other jump, and even a clumsily executed quad can earn a skater more points than a perfectly executed triple jump. This is how Chen was able to return to medal contention on Friday night. The six quad elements in his free skate earned Chen a combined 84.21 points—just 0.26 points lower than Adam Rippon’s total free skate element score.
Rippon, as usual, skated beautifully and yet finished the event in 10th place. While every man who finished above him attempted at least one quad, Rippon does not feel comfortable with quad jumps and did not include any in his program. Rippon flubbed one element of his free skate, a triple axel/double toe loop/double loop combination, and if he’d executed it perfectly he could have conceivably finished a couple of spots higher. But the relative simplicity of his technical elements meant there was never, ever a chance for him to medal in Pyeongchang. Without the quad, eighth place was pretty much Adam Rippon’s Olympics ceiling.
Casual skating fans likely noticed a clear difference between Rippon and Chen’s programs. Rippon’s free skate was a cohesive, balletic piece that felt like a statement. Chen’s free skate, by comparison, felt like an athletic triumph but not much of an artistic one. While Chen’s free skate was well choreographed, the program components felt extraneous to the technical elements. I responded to both men’s efforts, but I responded in different ways. Chen impressed me. Rippon moved me.
Although Chen has forced a reckoning in the sport, the debate between athleticism and artistry has raged in the skating world for a decade. At the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, Russia’s Evgeni Plushenko landed a quad in both his short program and his free skate. But Plushenko took silver to the American skater Evan Lysacek, who despite not attempting a single quad in either program was deemed by the judges to have skated an overall better routine. “Figure skating is not only jumping, otherwise we become guilty of the accusation we are only an acrobatic sport,” the ISU’s then-president told the media before the event. Plushenko wasn’t buying it. “If the Olympic champion doesn’t know how to jump quad, I don’t know,” he said afterwards. “Now it’s not figure skating. Now it’s dancing.”
The ISU, for now, has come down on Plushenko’s side. But it shouldn’t be an either-or proposition. For better or for worse, the quad is a part of skating now, and it would be a reactionary move to downgrade its value after the Olympics, as some have suggested the ISU should do. The Olympic champion should be able to perform the sport’s most difficult maneuvers.
But it would also be nice if figure skating found a way to reward skaters for doing quad jumps without devaluing the other elements. Perhaps the ISU could put additional weight on the program component scores, not to punish skaters like Nathan Chen but to encourage them to master every aspect of their sport. The three men who medaled in Pyeongchang—Japan’s Hanyu and Shoma Uno and Spain’s Javier Fernandez—found the balance that both Chen and Rippon lacked, skating technically brilliant routines that also succeeded as performances. (I almost started applauding from my couch after Fernandez’s stirring routine, which was set to selections from Man of La Mancha.) We shouldn’t be asking ourselves whether we’d prefer to see more skaters like Nathan Chen or ones like Adam Rippon. Rather, we should be demanding to watch skaters who can do it all.