An analysis of the scoring of Ilia Malinin's history-making quad axel
Hi guys, Dvora here. If you glance up at the byline, you’ll see that I’m not the author of this edition of the newsletter. Today’s analysis comes from Lynn Rutherford, a good friend and a veteran figure skating reporter. If you’ve ever read anything I’ve written about figure skating over the last few years and thought it sounded like I knew what I was talking about, well, that’s largely due to Lynn. She’s been so generous in sharing her figure skating knowledge with me. And I’m so excited for you all to get to read her work on skating. You can find Lynn over on Twitter and you can read more of her stories over at Team USA.
While the Venn diagram of figure skating fans and gymnastics fans isn’t a perfect circle, it’s pretty close. And the issue that Lynn explores in today’s newsletter—that of jump valuation—will feel familiar to even those gymnastics fans who don’t pay attention to skating at all. We’ve been having a version of that particular conversation in gymnastics for decades. (For recent examples see: the valuations of Simone Biles’ beam dismount and vault.)
I’m not certain I’ll be able to send out a newsletter next week. I have to fly down to Florida to pack up my elderly mother’s belongings and move her back to New York and into assisted living. I apologize for skipping a week so soon into the relaunch of this newsletter but I’ll be back with new material the following week.
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When Ilia Malinin launched into a quadruple axel 22 seconds or so into his Skate America free skate this October, he rotated so quickly, some of the 2,200 or so spectators gathered at Skating Club of Boston might have mistaken the jump for a mere triple, had the roar of the crowd not tipped them off that Grand Prix history was being made. The jump looked so light and easy.
It wasn’t. With its forward take-off and extra half a rotation, the axel is universally considered the most difficult jump in figure skating, and it isn’t close.
“Always treacherous” was how two-time Olympic champion (1948, 1952) and longtime commentator Dick Button characterized a double axel, usually right after a top skater of the 1970s or 80s wiped out on it. Two decades later, a wonky triple axel ruined three-time world champion (2011-2013) Patrick Chan’s shot at 2014 Olympic gold. “I’ve been blessed with good skating skills, but not with triple axel skills,” he told reporters in the 2018 Olympic mixed zone.
Now Malinin, with a fearless attitude and slight, 5’6” frame that is mostly legs, has set the skating world on its ear. He is doing a jump so difficult, many thought they might never see it. And he is doing it well.
“It seems like it comes easily to me, but the quad axel is really difficult, especially mentally,” he said at Skate America. “You have to be very confident and believe in your own technique.”
Malinin, who turns 18 in December, has the confidence. His Instagram handle includes “quadg0d,” and he often wears a knit hat embroidered with the self-anointed moniker, including in the kiss-and-cry while awaiting his marks.
He certainly has the technique: the son of Olympic figure skaters who raised him on the ice, he also trains with Rafael Arutunian, the technical wizard who coached Olympic champion Nathan Chen to quad glory.
And yet the future of his quad axel is up in the air. Why? Because with its base value (BV) of 12.50 points, it may not be worth the trouble and risk. Consider: the quad lutz, the next hardest jump in the skating pantheon, is only a point behind the quad axel in BV at 11.5 points.
At Skate America, Malinin’s near-perfect quad axel earned 16.61 total points, including the 12.5 BV plus another 4.11 points for grade of execution (GOE), which a panel of nine judges granted on a scale of 5 (highest) down to -5 (lowest, usually assigned to elements with falls).
As a point of comparison, another superb jump – the quad lutz hit by Chen in his memorable Elton John free skate at the 2022 Olympics in Beijing – earned him 16.43 points (11.50 BV, plus 4.93 GOE). Chen was already a three-time world champion, and Olympic judging panels are known for exuberant scoring. But still, only a .18 premium for a pristine quad axel? That hardly seems fair.
“I think if they were to raise the base value, there would be a reason to practice it a lot,” Malinin said on a media call early this fall. “As of right now, we’re not really so sure what to do with it.”
Every skater and coach I crossed paths with this fall thinks the quad axel is undervalued. Not only is it more difficult than the other quads, only one skater has mastered it.
Yuzuru Hanyu, the 2014 and 2018 Olympic champion, tried, off-and-on for more than two seasons, to land a quad axel in competition. The Japanese superstar, who owns a glorious triple axel and has successfully performed four other quads —toe, salchow, loop, and lutz—attempted the jump in his free skate in Beijing, but landed short and fell.
“It would be completely fair to reevaluate that (BV),” Ashley Wagner, a three-time U.S. champion (2012, 2013, 2015) told me. “Things are just getting exponentially harder. It’s not necessary for it all to work on the same scale. This is much harder than a triple axel, much harder than a quad lutz … You don’t want to hold the sport back from pushing forward, just because the risk vs. reward doesn’t pan out.”
Wagner is right. While Malinin has proven his competence with the jump, there is an old saying: ice is slippery. And, as Button reminded viewers for so many years, an axel lifts off on a forward edge, on a skid, without the assistance of a toepick, making it especially tricky. Splats on a quad axel, which Malinin does as the first element of his free skate, would be especially disruptive.
Even the skater, who has won three straight international events this fall and has done the quad axel at all of them, seems to have mixed feelings about the element that has quickly become his trademark.
“I wasn't really sure if I would attempt it or not,” he said at Skate America. “But it came over my mind, ‘Everyone is watching. I have to go for this.’ So, I went for it, and I landed it, and I was in shock. The whole building was screaming … It’s an amazing feeling.”
Now that he has added his name to the book of firsts, and enjoyed the initial rush of excitement, is a “feeling” – rather than points – amazing enough for Malinin to repeat the jump at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in January, followed by the Four Continents Figure Skating Championships in February, the World Figure Skating Championships in March, and so on, up through the 2026 Olympics? Enticing enough so that coaches train other up-and-coming skaters to follow suit?
Hanyu, who announced his retirement from competition in July, didn’t work so hard for the quad axel because he wanted to beat Chen and win a third Olympic title in Beijing. There were other, safer ways he could have constructed his programs and training to give himself a fighting chance. At age 27 – five years older than Chen, and nearly a decade older than Malinin – he kept trying the jump in shows this summer, with a chronically injured right ankle and nothing on the line, to add to his legacy. He simply wanted to be the first.
Now that Malinin has achieved it, the ISU can’t expect future skaters to be motivated solely by bragging rights. There needs to be more in it for the competitors. This is perhaps even true of the jump’s innovator.
Malinin has ridden the jump to stardom, but he doesn’t need it to win most of his events. The world junior champion has other jumping weapons: quad lutz, toe, salchow and, recently added, flip. He can also work on his skating in between the jumps and improve his already exciting choreography and style.
It’s possible that, after dazzling fans with the quad axel this fall, he will show it less often. It’s even more possible the jump will be a unicorn, with no other skater competing it for many years.
“For now, it’s more (about) practice, than about actually trying to put it in the program for points,” Malinin said. “In future years, when the base value is higher, it will be a lot more reasonable to put it in.”
The guiding hand of the ISU
Malinin sounded a hopeful note, and with reason. The International Skating Union (ISU) often tinkers with its rules, including the base values of elements. It is not uncommon for skaters and coaches to get several ISU bulletins with important changes during the late spring and summer. The exception is during the lead-in to an Olympic season.
The Scale of Values is maintained by the ISU Single & Pair Skating Technical Committee, with members elected at the biennial ISU Congress. Currently, it is chaired by Fabio Bianchetti of Italy, with four colleagues from Finland, Japan, Sweden and Australia. The Committee consults with a coaching member, former Swiss competitor Patrick Meier, and a skating member, 2022 Olympic pairs champion Han Cong of China.
Logically, jumps would be valued for their relative difficulty, so if one jump was twice as difficult as another, it would get twice as many points, and so on. A single axel is valued at 1.1; a double axel, at 3.3; a triple, 8.0; and a quad, 12.5. So a triple is nearly 150% the value of a double, while a quad is only valued at 56% more than a triple. But only Malinin does a quad axel, while many skaters – including nearly every man competing on the Grand Prix circuit – do triple axels.
Back when a quad axel was only hypothetical, it was more valuable. In the 2015/2016 season’s Scale of Values, all quadruple jumps were worth more; a quad axel had a BV of 15 points — 20% more than its current BV. Quad lutz was valued at 13.6, rather than the current 11.5. The lower base values took effect beginning with the 2017/2018 season.
“When skaters started presenting programs that [the ISU] didn't find necessarily attractive, or were doing things that it didn't necessarily want done, then it started to manipulate the scale of values, to push the programs in the direction it wanted them to be on the ice,” figure skating judge George Rossano, a mathematician and physicist who edits the online journal iceskatingintl.com, said when we discussed the matter at Skate Canada this fall.
Rossano cited another rule that took effect in 2017/2018, which kicks in harsher penalties after a skater falls twice in the same program. The first two falls result in one-point deductions from the total score; the third and fourth falls have two-point deductions; additional falls have three-point deductions. This rule is meant to prevent skaters from gaming the system, since a fully rotated quad jump – even with a fall – can be worth more than a cleanly landed triple.
“(The ISU) didn't want people falling all over the ice, but still getting a lot of points and winning, even though they couldn't stay on their feet,” Rossano said. “The problem was, you could go out and do a bunch of sloppy, messy quads, yet beat someone who had a really [clean and balanced] program.”
By extension, the ISU does not want a single element – quad axel—to play too great a role in who takes home gold.
“Yes, [the quad axel] is significantly undervalued in terms of its intrinsic difficulty,” Rossano said. “But if you gave it its true, intrinsic difficulty, then the one person now who has a quad axel wins every time, even though he might mess up elsewhere in the program.”
“Fanyus,” the not always affectionate nickname the skating world affixes to Hanyu’s legions of devoted fans, sometimes claim that the ISU set a low BV for the quad axel because it didn’t want their favorite to gain too much of an upper hand, when and if he landed it. I initially scoffed at this assertion. Now that the quad axel is a reality, and I’m staring at a protocol sheet, I’m not sure they were wrong.
The current scale of values doesn’t adequately reward innovation. And that’s not only true of quad axel, but also of quadruple twist lifts and throws in pairs.
Some educated observers think Malinin’s jumping prowess need not end with the four-and-a-half revolution axel, that a quint – five revolutions – is within reach.
“From the beginning, it was obvious Ilia was going to do all of this,” Michal Březina, a recently retired four-time Czech Olympian who coaches with Arutunian, told me. “Once Rafael started showing him exercises for axel, he was over-rotating triples.”
Březina, for one, thinks Malinin can achieve five revolutions.
“For him, a quint jump, maybe a toe loop, is possible,” he said. “With his velocity of rotation and adding the technique, it’s possible. He does quad toe-quad toe combinations, and if you can do that, the possibility of a quint is pretty close.”
With the ISU’s reluctance to set a proper BV for a quad axel or quad twist, though, it’s doubtful whether it would embrace a quint toe, either.
The endless debate: artistry vs. athleticism
In Sept. 2017, longtime Olympic reporter Philip Hersh interviewed Bianchetti via email about the changes to the Scale of Values. Bianchetti told Hersh, in part, the decrease in base value of “some elements that at present is extremely high … should also produce a better balance between the technical and components scores that is now in favor of the technical part.”
If the ISU hoped to stem the spread of quadruple jumps, it did not succeed. At the 2017 world championships, with the higher base values still in place, the 36 men who competed attempted 74 quads total (27 in the short program, and 47 in the free skate, 11 falls on quad attempts – there were also a few pops, not counted here.).
The 29 men who competed in the individual men’s event at the 2022 Olympics, where the BVs for quads were lower, attempted 84 quads (32 in the short, 52 in the free, 12 falls on quad attempts). This Olympic total would likely have been 6 or 7 attempts higher, had American Vincent Zhou not tested positive for Covid the day before the short, and been forced to withdraw. (I use the Olympics, rather than the 2022 world championships, because, as is custom, several top skaters skipped the worlds following the Olympics.)
Points win titles, and it is far easier for most young athletes and their coaches to define and strive for a perfect four-revolution jump than perfect program components (PCS) – composition, presentation and skating skills. How do you quantify traits like “expressiveness and projection” or “musical sensitivity and timing,” exactly? Components still seem subjective and hard to define despite the ISU’s best efforts to outline their requirements in detail.
So is the answer to achieving the ISU’s goal of “greater balance” to tamp down innovation and undervalue a jump like the quad axel, or to somehow increase the potential value of program component scores, still often called “the second mark” nearly 20 years after figure skating’s scoring system was changed?
The highest possible PCS is 10; a senior man’s maximum short program PCS is 50 points, while free skate PCS maxes out at 100 points. Multiplying factors – 1.67 for short program PCS, and 3.33 for free skate PCS – are used to give PCS and technical elements (TES) roughly equal weight, but after two decades of technical advances, elite skaters’ potential TES scores are far greater than 50 or 100.
In Beijing, Chen earned 121.41 for his free skate’s technical element score, vs. 97.22 for PCS. This, from an athlete who studied musical appreciation at Yale University, performed in ballets as a child and experimented with a wide range of genres, from Philip Glass to Mozart to Woodkid. PCS, as currently weighted, can’t keep pace. Only one man in the top six – the renowned artistic performer Jason Brown, who didn’t land a quad – had a higher free skate PCS than technical score (87.66 vs. 96.34).
At Skate America, Malinin’s free skate, which included the quad axel and four other quads (one was under rotated), gained 112.41 technical points and 82.88 in program components. Those PCS ranged from 7.25 all the way up to 9 – the same score several judges awarded Hanyu, one of the most polished performers in the sport, for his PCS in Beijing.
But again, PCS will always be somewhat subjective. Many fans argue that once skaters begin hitting multiple quads, their PCS magically rise, giving them an unfair edge over artistically gifted competitors like Brown or Kevin Aymoz, who lack the most difficult jumps, and also allowing less polished skaters to draw close to, and perhaps defeat, those rare top competitors with both multiple consistent quads and artistry.
“The judges have to do their job, in the sense that they can’t give all of the top skaters 8’s and 9’s and close to 10 for program components,” Rossano said. “I mean, they really have to do their job and say, ‘Yeah, you have great technical skills or jumping skills, but your presentation really is only a 7.5.’ They have to judge that correctly.”
If the ISU really wants to prevent overemphasis on jumps, it should reexamine the way judges mark skaters in program components – not under reward technical innovations like the quad axel and quad twist.
Fans weigh in
Not every figure skating enthusiast ascribes to the Olympic creed of “faster, higher, stronger.” After Malinin’s feat at Skate America, I sought opinions on the topic.
Surprisingly – at least to me – many thought a 12.50 base value was plenty for a quad axel. Several Hanyu devotees reminded me I hadn’t protested until an American skater, Malinin, was impacted. That is true, but he – unlike Hanyu – landed the jump in competition, making the conversation real, not hypothetical.
A few agreed with this Canadian fan.
Others thought greater reward might encourage more skaters to try the jump, thus increasing potential injuries. But most skaters are already plenty busy perfecting other quads, triple axels and various combinations; quad axel isn’t something many would start training, just for the heck of it.
Some agreed with me, citing the arguments I’ve made in this article. And that leaves us – where?
I am a baby boomer, on the young end of that large birth date range (1946-1964). I remember, well, what figure skating was before the International Judging System (IJS), before quads, triple axels and triple-triple combinations. A few great artists (John Curry, Toller Cranston, Igor Bobrin, Michelle Kwan) stood out, as Brown does now. But most top skaters from the 1970s through early aughts had to work to achieve technical and artistic balance, just as skaters do today.
I also question whether the proliferation of quads negatively impacts the sport’s popularity. Younger fans – and even, on occasion, me – consume figure skating content via social media clips. Malinin is building a following (68K on Instagram, high for a young senior) and attracting fans with his technical feats.
“I see the future of figure skating with Ilia being there and making the sport better than it was before,” longtime sports agent Ari Zakarian, who represents Malinin, said.
“Social media is very important; we can see that, for example, with my other skater, Elladje Baldé, who was never a world or Olympic [competitor,] but he is doing very well because he is smart, he is covering social media the way it’s supposed to be. And you love it, or you don’t love it, but you have to deal with it. Everyone lives in the gadgets and life changes.”
To Zakarian, Malinin – soft-spoken, yet with an unmistakable “quadg0d” swagger – can help the sport engage viewers. His journey to the quad axel, documented on Instagram, excited fans during the summer of 2022 and culminated in that big moment at Skate America. Future feats, from Malinin and others, could do the same, as can clips of innovative choreography, like the kind posted by Balde.
“I love athletes being hungry, I love when you can see an athlete like Ilia show off what he can do,” Wagner said. “He’s really confident, he is young, talented, he has a fire in him. Seeing athletes like that is inspiring. We need to have athletes like that showing that it’s okay to be that confident. I think it’s important and necessary.”
“This kid has an insane amount of talent and drive, and to see that put together is really exciting,” she added. “It’s a cool time to be watching figure skating.”