figure skater Anna Shcherbakova performing in a sparkly dress at the beijing 2022 olympics

Figure skating in the 2022 Olympics hinged on quad jumps. Could 2026 feature quintuple jumps?

In elite figure skating, it’s all about the quads—for now, at least.

The highly difficult quadruple jumps, which require ice skaters to launch into the air, complete four full rotations in one second or less, then land gracefully on one foot, have become the new standard of excellence at the highest levels of the sport. At the Beijing Olympics, the gold and silver medalists in the women’s free skate threw seven quad jumps, combined. Nathan Chen, the gold medalist in the men’s free-skate competition, pulled off five different quads during his routine.

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“Now you pretty much need a quad to medal at the Olympics,” Mirai Nagasu told the New York Times. “To me that sounds crazy, but it’s true.” In 2018, Nagasu became the first American woman and third overall to land a triple axel at the Olympics. The axel, first performed by Norwegian figure skater Axel Paulson in 1882, differs from the quad in that it begins with the skater facing forward. The quad usually begins with the skater moving backward.

What makes the quad jump so desirable—and so difficult? It comes down to the physics of the human body, says Dagmar Sternad, university distinguished professor of biology and director of Northeastern’s Action Lab.

A human being can jump only about two feet straight into the air, with athletes doubling that height as they channel all their muscular effort into the vertical direction, explain Sternad and Aleksei Krotov, a doctoral candidate in bioengineering who works in the Action Lab. With such effort, they would still only spend less than a second in the air.

To perform a quad jump, skaters need to achieve that height and create torque sufficient to rotate four times, by pushing off one of the edges of their ice skates or using the toe-picks at the front of the skates.

“Athletes will stick the toe-pick into the ice at the moment they’ve already begun moving into the jump,” Krotov says. “It is that instant at which the rotation can begin.”

As soon as skaters lift off the ground, they’ll compress and collapse their whole bodies by pulling their outstretched arms tightly across their chest and intertwining their legs, reducing their inertia as much as possible to speed up the rotation.

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Photo by Annice Lyn/Getty Images.

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