Lights, Shadows and Dangers Behind the Jumps of Figure Skating

During the 2022 Winter Olympics , held in Beijing, 15-year-old Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva made history. And it is that, for the first time in an Olympic Games, she managed to do a quadruple jump during a competition of women’s figure skating on ice . It is something exceptional because it is very rare for a woman to make this jump. In men it is something more common, but in the feminine categories it is so rare that it is even being considered to ban it .

And it is that to be able to do a quadruple jump, a very specific physical complexion and a very hard training are required. So much so that it can put figure skaters’ backs in jeopardy.

In fact, you only have to see how Valieva collapsed at the end of her routine to understand that skaters who include these types of exercises in their programs put themselves under great pressure , both physical and psychological. And that has consequences. Most skaters who stand out as much as the young Russian have fleeting careers, often starting at a very young age and ending before they reach their 20s. Either because the development of their body does not allow them to make certain turns or because they can no longer.

Stress injuries are the most common in this type of sports and eating behavior disorders (ED) are unfortunately the order of the day. Therefore, this wear comes at a very early moment in their lives, sometimes taking its toll on them forever.

The history of the quadruple jump in figure skating

The quad jump, also known as a quad jump, is a jump in figure skating that includes at least four revolutions, or turns. There are several types, depending on how you take off and land. All except for the one known as the quadruple axel jump , which contains four and a half revolutions.

On the day Valieva made history at the Beijing Winter Olympics, she performed a quad jump of each type: a salchow and toe jump combined with a triple jump . She attempted another toe but fell trying. Even so, what she achieved was exceptional, since very few women have achieved it.

In fact, no female figure skater had ever done it until 2002, when Japan’s Miki Ando successfully landed a quadruple Salchow jump in the final of the Junior Grand Prix in The Hague, Netherlands. She was four days short of her 15th birthday. After her, only four other skaters have achieved it: Alexandra Trusova, Anna Shcherbakova, Adeliia Petrosian and, now, Kamila Valieva . 

Trusova has done it twice, at 14 and 15 years old , Shcherbakova and Petrosian both at 14. It is clear that age is a determining factor.

As for the men, the first to achieve it arrived first. However, there haven’t been many more since then. The first skater to quadruple jump in figure skating was Canadian Kurt Browning . He achieved that milestone at the World Championships in Budapest, in 1988, when he was 22 years old . This data is important.

The rest of the skaters who have achieved it are Timoteo Goebel, Brandon Mroz, Yuzuru Hanyu and Shoma Uno . Goebel did it with 18 years, Mroz with 21 and the two Japanese with 22 and 19 years respectively. They were young, yes, but much less than the skaters with their same achievements.

And although this may seem like a minor detail, it is the main reason why many people think that the quad jump should not be allowed in women’s figure skating.

Thin bodies, frail backs

As a spokesperson for Legahielo , a group of three former skaters dedicated to informing about figure skating, Paola Ramos explained to Hipertextual the reason why the skaters who have achieved quadruple jumps is because they are young. “The adult body can’t stand the demands of these jumps,” says the former skater. “There are some older skaters, like Elyzaveta Tuktamysheva , who at 24 have also been able to throw a quad in competition.” However, she adds that since she turned 25 she has not been seen to repeat her feat.

And this is because your body is no longer the most conducive to this type of ice skating jump. “Usually the ones who do it are skaters who haven’t developed their bodies yet because they haven’t gone through puberty ,” says Ramos. “In short, apparently too skinny skaters .” 

That is, it is not enough not to have developed the body. Extreme thinness is also necessary, which can be harmful to skaters . That is precisely the reason why their sports careers are so fleeting. “In recent years we have been seeing how skaters of about 7 or 8 years old are throwing triples without difficulties,” explains the member of Legahielo. “The problem is that these skaters last one or two seasons and are replaced by new Russian promises who do more demanding elements.” In fact, Ramos suspects that Valieva herself will soon announce her withdrawal.

Some do it out of sheer exhaustion or because their bodies can no longer tolerate certain movements, like the quad jump. But many do so for dangerous injuries , stemming from subjecting an undeveloped body to extreme stress. “American figure skater Tara Lipinski injured her hip and had to undergo hip surgery when she was only 18 years old,” recalls Ramos. “Russian Adelina Sotnikova , Olympic champion in Sochi 2014 at the age of 17, had a torn ligament in her ankle after those Olympic Games, she stopped competing and shortly after announced her retirement.” 

He also tells us about the case of Alina Zagitova , who “retired at just 17 years old”. And that of Evgenia Medvedeva , who retired at the age of 21 due to a back injury that prevented her from doing some jumps. 

The women who perform the quadruple jump are girls with their bodies still undeveloped

The most common injuries in figure skating

Medvedeva, Zagitova or Lipinski are some examples of athletes who had to give up figure skating due to injuries at the height of their careers. However, the names of those who fell by the wayside are less well known. Many people involved in this transport have suffered serious injuries before they got to win competitions. And it is that, in reality, it requires an effort that, together with the immaturity of the body , can be very dangerous.

In fact, according to several scientific studies, ice skating injuries are usually due to stress . That is, the body is subjected to such pressure that there comes a point where the muscles and bones can no longer. 

The most common injuries are known as stress injuries.

In one of these works, published in 2021, the cases of 271 girls and 23 boys aged between 9 and 19 years were analyzed . All of them practiced figure skating. When studying the injuries that they reported during the study period, it was seen that 11.8% were due to bone stress and that 42.2% of those injuries due to stress occurred in the back . Injuries to the ankles and knees are also common .

Another study, published in 2003, was conducted at the Junior World Figure Skating Championships and the Croatian Cup , involving 236 female figure skaters and 233 male figure skaters . Of all of them, there were 42.8% of girls and 45.5% of boys who reported excessive use syndromes . Additionally, there were 19 figure skaters and 23 figure skaters who reported low back pain . 

All this is very serious, since injuries due to excessive use in figure skating can become chronic . It is one of the conclusions of another study, published in 2007, which indicates that the most common chronic injuries occur in the foot, ankle, knee, leg, hip and lower back .

What about the skaters?

We have already seen that skaters suffer injuries just like their partners in figure skating. But we have also verified that they tend to compete longer . Not only in relation to the quadruple jump, but also in general, with all its programs. This is due to several reasons.

To begin with, Legahielo explains to us that the body of men is not an impediment to certain jumps once it matures. “Men don’t develop hips or breasts , so when they mature they still have the same straight, streamlined body type that allows them to rotate more easily .”

In addition, they point out that men’s bones develop for a longer time, so they become longer and stronger in general . It is important to highlight that “in general”, since each case is unique and there can always be exceptions. This allows them to be able to perform routines like the quad jump for longer. And it also saves them from some injuries . But, above all, it keeps them away from something that also prevails in figure skating , as well as in other sports that require a very specific physical constitution: eating disorders. 

The dangers of pressure in figure skating

Male and female figure skaters put so much pressure on their bodies that they can suffer stress injuries. We have already seen that. But your physical health is not the only one that can be damaged. Eating disorders (EDs) are also common . It is not uncommon for it to happen, since, especially in the case of women, a very thin body is needed, but at the same time strong . And that requires a lot of pressure directed at the physique of the skaters.

In a documentary, figure skater Alina Zagitova confessed that during competitions she did not drink water for fear of gaining weight

In fact, according to what the girls from Legahielo tell us, TCAs are very present in this sport. “In a documentary in which the Russian skaters of Team Tutberidze , to which Valieva belongs, are seen, they said that they were weighed every day and that they could not gain more than 200 grams,” says Paola Ramos. “They follow very strict diets that are not good for anyone’s health. Even Alina Zagitova, one of the students of this team, confessed that during the competitions she did not drink water for fear of getting fat . From that same documentary, statements such as those of a trainer are extracted, who used to say that “for every gram of weight, a degree of laziness is added.” 

The problem is that, unfortunately, this is not always the case. “The obsession to be in the best possible shape, the addiction to physical exercise , the competitive desire, the need to stand out, the pressure of the environment itself, the desire to lose as much fat as possible or the need for financial compensation are added to the predisposing risk factors for the onset of an eating disorder”, comments the expert. “Not all the predisposing risk factors are always present, or even if there is one, the disease does not debut.” 

Knowing all this, it is not surprising that TCAs are very common in sports such as figure skating. Of course, it is important to note that the need for thinness in sports does not always imply disorders. The psychologist specializing in eating behavior disorders, Alfonso Méndez, has explained it to Hipertextual . “If that desired thinness does not alter the perception of the body and only seeks to improve competitiveness, in a controlled and supervised manner , it should not generate any problem”. 

In general, the causes in figure skating are the same as in the general population. However, among athletes they are magnified . In addition, it is sometimes more difficult to detect the existence of the disorder , because it is disguised as training and objective health care. “In a society that values ​​thinness, it is difficult to objectively examine nutritional habits and caloric intake , especially in the population of elite athletes,” says Méndez. “Athletes with eating disorders are found in practically all sports disciplines , and despite the dramatic weight loss that this entails for the athlete, they often deny that they are on a diet .”

Therefore, it is a particularly vulnerable population, to which great attention must be paid. Not only because of the devastating psychological consequences . Also because of what it may involve on a physical level, since there may be hormonal deregulations, alterations in menstruation or an increased probability of developing osteoporosis .

In short, although after the last Winter Olympics the focus was on the quadruple jump, the possible harm of figure skating goes much further. Like any sport, it is very beneficial for those who practice it, but the physical and psychological pressure it entails can be terrible if left unchecked. And control does not refer to having under control the reactions of athletes who are just girls . But rather to control adults and in full faculties who scare those who trust them the most, making them believe that a normative weight is typical of lazy people.