Five-ring Circus

Are Quintuple Jumps in Figure Skating Even Possible?

The “quad revolution” has many wondering about the upper bounds of what human bodies can do on ice.

Hanyu spinning on the ice, his arms outstretched
Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu in the men’s free skating program during the Winter Olympics, at the Capital Indoor Stadium in Beijing on Feb. 10. Antonin Thuillier/AFP via Getty Images

Yuzuru Hanyu’s closest-yet attempt at a quadruple axel last Thursday night at the Olympics had everyone buzzing about the possibility of a 4.5-revolution jump, a feat never before accomplished in competition. The biggest jumps landed so far have been lesser-revolution quads—toe loops, salchows, loops, flips, and lutzes—where a skater revolves an even four times in the air before landing backward. After his Beijing performance, Hanyu indicated that he’d reached his personal limit, saying, “I have nothing left to give.”

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Although Hanyu might be done, efforts to push the sport forward will no doubt continue. So, let’s skip past 4.5 revolutions for the moment. What about five-revolution jumps? Will those ever be possible? And does it matter if they are?

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Quints have been considered the jumps of tomorrow for some time now, and seem within striking distance for today’s top skaters. Nathan Chen, who took gold last week in men’s singles, told GQ that he considered training one last season, but ultimately decided against it. “It’s not really necessary, and the risk for injury is so high that it’s also not really worth it right now,” he said. Still, “I would love to see a quint at some point.”

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Two-time Olympic medalist Shoma Uno put it another way in a 2019 video for the Olympic Channel: “The quadruple jump was previously considered as an unrealistic thing for human beings, but now the fact that so many skaters hit it almost naturally means somebody will land a quintuple someday.”

The perception that quads are routine now, while a bit hyperbolic, does hold some water. For years, male skaters have needed reliable quad jumps to stay competitive, and at this Winter Olympics, multiple Russian women will likely attempt quads during their free skates this week. (Kamila Valieva, whose performance has been marred by a positive drug test, became the first woman to land a quad at the Olympics during the team event.) Several more junior-level skaters have landed quads, a surprising achievement considering that no woman had even attempted a quad in competition from 2003 to 2016. Prior to 2003, only Surya Bonaly, Sasha Cohen, and Miki Ando attempted quad jumps, and none landed fully rotated ones in senior competition.

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Worryingly, for women skaters, youth seems to be a prerequisite for mastering these jumps. Not only does intensive training during childhood help, but the changes that typically occur during female puberty make it more difficult to land quads. Pressures to stay competitive amid the quad revolution may lead to early retirements for a generation of skaters. Alina Zagitova, the 2018 Olympic champion, retired from competitions a year later at age 17. She was promptly replaced by even younger Russian skaters who landed quad jumps that she had never trained.

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For a sliver of elite skaters, it might follow that quintuple jumps are the next progression in the sport. But given the difficulty of quads for women, especially those past puberty, quints may be physically out of reach. And if Hanyu, one of the best skaters in the world, couldn’t manage the quint’s baby brother, it’s fair to wonder whether a five-revolution jump is as close to happening as some skaters think it is.

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“Skaters are pressing up against physiological and biological limits. I think the line is really close to where the quint is,” says Deborah King, an exercise science professor at Ithaca College who has spent decades rink-side researching the physics of figure skating.

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Let’s consider those physics. Skaters launching themselves into the air need both vertical and angular velocity—the speed to jump high and spin fast. There’s a finite amount of energy converted by bringing in one’s arms and legs and vaulting off the skate’s toe pick. The more that energy goes toward spinning, the less it can go toward attaining height. Well, you might think, a skater could convert more total energy by beefing up their legs. But a more muscular build is less aerodynamic and has a greater moment of inertia, a value that here refers to how difficult it is to make a body start spinning. In other words, the jumps in skating can only get so big without installing a ramp on the ice. (But think about how fun that would be to watch!)

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Dozens of articles have explored these same physical considerations. Most come to the conclusion that the jump is possible, albeit extremely difficult. But even if skaters do attempt and land quints, there’s a strong chance the jumps will have little impact on the sport and fans’ enjoyment of it.

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First, there’s the skill itself. A jump is considered under-rotated if it is missing between a quarter and a half of one revolution. Technically, then, a quintuple toe loop would need only a smidge over 4.5 revolutions to be scored as such. (To receive full points on the jump, it would need 4.75 revolutions.) Hanyu’s quad axel attempt is the closest any skater has gotten to this number of revolutions in a competition; judges scored the jump as under-rotated, meaning it lasted between 4 and 4.25 revolutions. Skaters can also “round up” a jump by pre-rotating, or starting to spin before they have left the ice. Pre-rotation is tougher to look for and measure than under-rotation, meaning it is rarely penalized. Should pre-rotated and under-rotated quints merit greater acclaim than a by-the-book quad?

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Then, there’s the impact on the crowd. Figure skating is both a sport and a performance, and spectators (and judges) serve as reminders that athletic achievement and entertainment value can both converge and diverge. Skating jumps last less than a second—truly, they are over in the blink of an eye—and it is near impossible to count the four revolutions of a quad in real time. While it’s exciting to read about, an extra revolution does basically nothing to enhance the visuals of the sport.

The conversation about quints sounds a lot like the discussion that dominated the men’s halfpipe event in Beijing. Be it media spin or genuine excitement over the possibility of pushing the boundaries of a sport, the snowboard competition was awash with talk of the elusive “triple cork,” a trick that had never been performed at the Olympics. Ultimately, Ayumu Hirano took gold with a run that featured the three-flip move. More interestingly, though, he executed the trick seemingly perfectly in an earlier run—and still scored lower than a competitor who had not attempted it, to NBC analyst Todd Richards’ outrage.

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Quints, similarly, could be met with indifference from skating judges. The jumps, if they become de rigueur, will also draw criticism from those who value artistry and precision over technical mastery. “We’ve gone a long way from that side of skating to the athletic side of figure skating; it’s almost like it’s become a different sport,” says King.

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Skaters should be commended for pushing their sport forward, but they should be rewarded for all sorts of advances, not just jumps. Difficult footwork combinations, displays of flexibility and showmanship like spiral sequences, new and inventive spins—if skating valued these elements as highly as it does quadruple jumps, the types of bodies that succeed in the sport might not be so constrained. I’m not hopeful that the International Skating Union will reconsider the scoring system (I’m not very hopeful about any of the official organizations that arbitrate the sport, right now), but as viewers, it’s in our power to celebrate the moves that matter most to us. And for me, quads and quints aren’t it.

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