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The Axel is the Only Jump that Takes Off Backwards

by George S. Rossano

Axel Example

Typical triple Axel takeoff.  Skating foot is rotated one-quarter rotation from takeoff direction.  Upper body (hips, torso, shoulders) is pre-rotated somewhat less than one-quarter rotation.  Free leg is swung in direction of takeoff, roughly to the side of the body.  This is about as good as it gets for minimizing triple Axel pre-rotation at the takeoff.  For double Axel the upper body should remain square to the direction of takeoff.  Double Axel is achievable without pre-rotation.

Triple Toe Loop Example

Quads are not the only jumps that get a free pass for massive pre-rotation.  This Triple Toe Axel is pre-rotated one-half rotation but was scored fully rotated.


Quad Lutz Example

This quad Lutz is pre-rotated one-half rotation but was scored fully rotated.

Detail at the start of the pre-rotation.  Note the clear wrong edge for the skating foot.  This change of edge was not called either.

This skater uses the same technique for her triple Lutz, with the same errors.  Despite the one-half pre-rotation and the change of edge this jump was given full credit.

(10 January 2020) A quip is sometime heard from ISU officials that "the Axel is the only jump that takes off backwards."  This is a bit of an exaggeration, but for many jumps, and particularly the most difficult jumps (triple Axel and above), it hold a lot of truth.

A textbook Axel, of course, is supposed to take off forwards on an outside edge, and the other jumps are supposed to take off backwards on either inside or outside edges.  So often today, however, that is no longer the case, and as a result many jump calls that should be unders or downs are instead given full credit.  Indeed, the prevalence now of massively cheated jumps that are given full base value in competition is turning IJS scores into a joke.  We share here some thought about what ought to constitute a cheated jump.

Let's begin with the Axel.

The idealized Axel begins on a forward outside edge, the skater rocks up onto the toe picks at the takeoff, swings the free leg forward in the direction of flight and executes an integer number of rotations plus one-half in the air, and lands on a back outside edge on the opposite foot.  Here is an example of an idealized takeoff for a double Axel.

While single and double Axels can be completed that way, the first reality of actual technique is at the takeoff, the takeoff foot is often rotated perpendicular to the direction of the takeoff which then occurs off of a skidded edge.  Skaters frequently use this technique for single and double Axel, and most for triple Axel.

Is this a flaw or an error or a cheat?  No, not in itself, as long as the hips and shoulders remain square to the direction of the takeoff so that the body is not pre-rotated on the ice.  For single and double Axel many skaters (maybe even the majority) take off this way, with the free leg still swung forward in the direction of flight.

Some skaters, however, beginning with double Axel, and all skaters for triple Axel add another wrinkle to the takeoff. Before leaving the ice the shoulders and hips begin a pre-rotation of up to at least one-quarter rotation as the free leg is swung in the direction of flight, which is now actually to the side of the pre-rotated body.  Some double Axels and many triple Axel are thus pre-rotated up to about one-quarter turn on the takeoff.  This pre-rotation, however, is ignored in competition when jumps are called.

From an empirical point of view, since many skaters can complete a fully rotated double Axel without any pre-rotation, we would consider any attempt with pre-rotation a cheated jump, with "missing rotation" in ISU terminology.  Since most triple Axel attempt are pre-rotated roughly up to one-quarter turn, we empirically conclude that some pre-rotation is needed to complete the jump for the vast majority of skaters, probably because sufficient initial angular momentum usually cannot be generated without that technique.  This pre-rotation has been used since skaters first started to land triple Axels.

Does anyone ever actually pre-rotate an Axel one-half rotation and takeoff backwards like the quip says?  No, not that we have seen.  To do so would require swinging the free leg either backwards or in an otherwise ineffective way.  We have, however, seen triple Axel attempts with as much as one-third pre-rotation, but that seems to be the physical limit given the construction of the human body.  Bottom line, triple Axels seem to require up to about one-quarter pre-rotation to be successful.  Any pre-rotation above that we consider missing rotation (a cheat).

What about toe loop through Lutz?

For these types of jumps that are supposed to take off on a backwards edge, we have, over the years, seen idealized examples commonly completed, with correct rotations and edges, up through triple Lutz.  Empirically, idealized jumps through triple Lutz are all within the capability of elite skaters, though it is not necessarily how all skaters always execute them.  Nevertheless, since all these jumps are within human capability as idealized jumps, we consider any of these jumps up through triple Lutz to be cheated if they are missing any rotation on the takeoff or landing.

Quads, on the other hand, are another matter.  Quad toe loop through quad Lutz overwhelmingly take off with as much as one-half pre-rotation.  Some skaters are able to land these jumps in competition with only one-quarter pre-rotation on the takeoff, and fully rotated on the landing, and a few (men so far) have landed quads with full rotation.  We infer again, that a small amount of pre-rotation is usually necessary to obtain the initial angular momentum needed to complete the jump.  Beyond one-quarter pre-rotation, however, we would consider any additional rotation missing on the takeoff or landing of a quad a cheat.

The ISU, however, does not see it that way.

The ISU does not consider the amount of pre-rotation in calling unders and downs in competition, no matter how egregious.  Consequently, quads with one-half pre-rotation on the takeoff and nearly one-quarter rotation missing on the landing, are scored as fully rotated quads, with full base value.  Judges, who must be able to see this missing rotation plain as day, also do not take GoE reductions.  In the worst case, a quad attempt will get full base value for a jump that has only one-quarter rotation more than a fully idealized (fully rotated) triple, with attendant high positive values for GoEs.  This makes a mockery of competition scoring.

The scale of values for jumps was constructed to give a huge point premium for quads assuming quads had one more full rotation than a triple, making them much more difficult.  The reality is, quads with only 3 1/4 to 3 1/2 rotations are getting all these points for an extra 1/4 to 1/2 rotation over a triple, while a skater who completes the real thing with 3 3/4 or greater rotations gets the same base value.

One further problem with these massive cheats on the pre-rotation is that edge changes on the quad Lutz takeoff are also being ignored.  A quad Lutz pre-rotated one-half rotation on the takeoff consists of the skater skating up over the tapping foot, rotating one-half turn on the ice, then taking off.  In skating up over the tapping foot with the entry foot still on the ice it is physically impossible to hold the outside entry edge.  Every quad Lutz attempt with one-half pre-rotation on the takeoff has an unambiguous change of edge - a change of edge that is never called.

How is it in the last few seasons the Russian wunderkind in the Ladies event are now able to land triple Axels and quads?  The reason is they are taught to pre-rotate the takeoffs excessively, knowing they won't get penalized for it, and some also have a bit of missing rotation on the landings.  They aren't doing triple Axels and they aren't doing quads, and they do not deserve full base value for these jumps.  They are not getting points for advances in skill, but for advances in gaming the system.

Why does the ISU tolerates this?  The usual answer I get is that if all these jumps received unders or downs, and edge calls, for so many skaters it would make the sport look ridiculous.  Purists would argue instead it makes the sport look ridiculous to be giving massive points for things that are not correctly executed, while giving the few skaters who can actually do the jumps correctly the same points.  It is a fundamental lack of fairness in the scoring; and not only when it comes to comparing different quad attempts, but also for the ladies (particularly the more mature ones) who can execute true triples through triple Lutz with quality, but end up slaughtered by skaters with massively cheated quads.

Bad technique begets bad technique.

One final observation. The wunderkind we have observed who use these dubious techniques for their quads use the same dubious techniques for their triples, even though that is not necessary to complete the triples.  This is not surprising, as one would not expect a skater to switch back and forth between two different techniques depending on the number of rotations.  For example, Anna Shcherbakova has the same one-half pre-rotation and change of edge on her triple Lutz as on her quad Lutz, and in both cases the ISU gives those jumps full credit, not even calling the wrong takeoff edge.  Note the nearly identical takeoff positions in the photos at left for a quad Lutz and triple Lutz.

How to re-level the playing field.

Given that skaters have long demonstrated that jumps through triple Lutz can be landed with no missing rotation, when calling unders and downs all rotation missing on both the takeoff and the landing should be considered in the calls for these jumps.

For triple Axel and quads, which requires a small amount of pre-rotation to complete the jump, when calling unders and downs all rotation missing above the first one-quarter of pre-rotation, on both the takeoff and the landing should be considered in the calls for these jumps.

The above standards would insure that skaters who cannot fully rotate a jump get appropriately reduced points, while the skaters who can properly execute a jump get the full credit they deserve.  If the protocols become littered with under, down and edge calls until skaters decide not to attempt things they cannot do, so be it.  Some people, we recognize, will not find this appealing, but it is the fairest way to score jumps.  And it doesn't require any rules changes to fix the problem!

If, instead, the ISU prefers to award full base value to these massively cheated jumps, then the SoV needs to be revised to reflect the fact that pseudo triple Axels and quads have little more rotation in the air than true triples.  If the standard now it that these jumps need no more than one-quarter to one-half rotation above a true triple, then the SoV for these jumps should be no more than 10-20% higher than for triple Lutz, not the numerous points that is currently the case.  The drawback to this is that the skaters who execute 3A and quads with less than one-quarter pre-rotation will be underscored.

There may be other solutions, but something needs to be done to insure jumps missing rotation get the scores they truly deserve, reflective of what is really accomplished - and it needs to be in place before the next Olympic Winter Games.  Given the time and cost it involves, if IJS is not going to be used correctly, then it might as well not be used at all, particularly if it is only going to be a charade of an objective scoring system.

Text and all photos Copyright 2020 by George S. Rossano