Five-ring Circus

Figure skating is a math problem, and the American skater’s numbers didn’t add up.

To an untrained eye, American figure skater Adam Rippon performed nigh flawlessly during the team skating event in Pyeongchang that aired Sunday. The 28-year-old first-time Olympian skated with verve, made no major mistakes, and—this is a big one for us armchair skating judges—remained upright for the duration of his time on the ice.

But when all was said and done, Rippon finished in third place, behind two skaters who had fallen during their routines. What’s the deal?

The deal, my friends, is that, in figure skating as in life, it’s sometimes better to try a difficult thing and fall on your butt than to take a cautious approach and stay on your feet.

Scoring in figure skating is divided into two basic components: the program component score and the technical element score. The program component score measures the performance, choreography, footwork, and artistry of the skating routine. Rippon’s component score was slightly higher than that of the second-place finisher, OAR skater Mikhail Kolyada—who, as previously noted, fell on his butt during the first jump of his own routine, a quadruple lutz. So then why did Kolyada top Rippon? The answer lies in the other half of the figure-skating scoring.

The technical element score measures the various jumps, spins, and sequences that make up a skater’s routine. Every legal jump and spin, from the single salchow to the mythical quadruple axel, has been assigned a base point value by the International Skating Union, with that base value ascending as the move becomes more difficult. The base-value scoring system also accounts for a skater’s execution of the routine, with specific deductions assessed for imperfectly executed elements, and additional points assigned for well-executed components.

The quad jumps, which are deemed the most difficult, carry the highest base values. A perfectly executed four-and-a-half-rotation quadruple axel—the jump has never been landed in competition—could earn a skater a staggering 18.6 points, whereas a perfectly executed triple axel maxes out at 11.5 points. A perfect quadruple lutz—the jump with the second highest value—would earn a skater a maximum of 16.6 points, whereas a perfect triple lutz would only bring in 8.1 points.

Why don’t more people try quads, then? Because quads are very hard to land, and most skaters can’t land them with confidence. Mikhail Kolyada, a wonderful skater, fell when he tried to execute a quad. A misstep like that can affect a competitor’s confidence and rhythm. And yet an imperfectly executed quadruple jump can earn a skater more points than a perfectly executed triple jump.

Mikhail Kolyada fell while doing a quadruple lutz, which has a base value of 13.6 points, with a maximum grade of execution score of 3.0—13.6 + 3.0 = 16.6, the top possible value for a quadruple lutz—and a maximum deduction of 4.0. Kolyada was docked 3.77 points for his lutz attempt but still walked away with 9.83 points for the element—almost 2 full points higher than he would’ve scored by doing a perfect triple lutz. (He also lost 1 additional point from his total score because he fell. This stuff is confusing.)