Single to Double to Triple: A Video on the Evolution of Jumps in Women’s Figure Skating

Scenes from the Olympics.
Feb. 19 2014 12:32 PM

From Single to Double to Triple

The evolution of the jump in women’s figure skating, from 1936 to 2014.

Here’s an Olympic time lapse for you. In 1936, Sonja Henie of Norway won her third consecutive gold medal in women’s figure skating without ever having rotated more than once in the air. Three-quarters of a century later, in 2010, Japan’s Mao Asada landed three triple axels—the three-and-a-half-rotation jump that’s the most difficult in the women’s repertoire to date—and still had to settle for silver in Vancouver.

Some figure-skating aficionados bemoan the increased emphasis placed on extreme jumping skills in contemporary competition—a development we’ve tracked in the video above—but it wasn’t always thus. As late as 1968, American gold medalist Peggy Fleming could win applause from the audience in Grenoble for a mere single axel. The weight placed on compulsory figures, in which skaters would trace precise patterns in the ice with their blades, left some talented jumpers in the shadows: the U.S.’s Elaine Zayak (sixth place, 1984) and Japan’s astonishing Midori Ito (fifth place, 1988—despite landing a record seven triple jumps) were just two of the athletes whose triumphant free skates couldn’t make up for lackluster figures. (Compulsories were eliminated from international competition in 1990.)

The double axel was the most difficult move in Dorothy Hamill’s gold-medal skate in 1976, but by the time Tara Lipinski and Sarah Hughes were skating to gold in 1998 and 2002, respectively, it was regarded as a kind of warm-up move—a gateway jump to the more hardcore feats to come. This year’s favorites, Yuna Kim of South Korea and Yulia Lipnitskaya of Russia, don’t bother with the double axel unless they’re pairing it with a triple. With even Mao Asada struggling in recent years to land a triple axel, it’s unclear if the next frontier in women’s jumps will be a quadruple, a triple-triple-triple combination, or some other physics-defying stunt. Until then, we can always harken back to the craziest airborne phenomenon in a modern Olympic games: Surya Bonaly’s backflip, Nagano ’98.

Chris Wade is a video and podcast producer for Slate and occasional contributor to Brow Beat. Follow him on Twitter.

Jessica Winter is a Slate senior editor.



Scalia’s Liberal Streak

The conservative justice’s most brilliant—and surprisingly progressive—moments on the bench.

Scotland Votes to Remain in U.K.

There’s a Way to Keep Ex-Cons Out of Prison That Pays for Itself. Why Don’t More States Use It?

The Music Industry Is Ignoring Some of the Best Black Women Singing R&B

Can Democrats Keep Counting on Republicans to Offend Women as a Campaign Strategy?


Theo’s Joint and Vanessa’s Whiskey

No sitcom did the “Very Special Episode” as well as The Cosby Show.


The Other Huxtable Effect

Thirty years ago, The Cosby Show gave us one of TV’s great feminists.

Cliff Huxtable Explains the World: Five Lessons From TV’s Greatest Dad

Why Television Needs a New Cosby Show Right Now

  News & Politics
Sept. 18 2014 8:20 PM A Clever Attempt at Explaining Away a Vote Against the Farm Bill
Sept. 18 2014 6:02 PM A Chinese Company Just Announced the Biggest IPO in U.S. History
The Slate Quiz
Sept. 18 2014 11:44 PM Play the Slate News Quiz With Jeopardy! superchampion Ken Jennings.
  Double X
Sept. 18 2014 8:07 PM Crying Rape False rape accusations exist, and they are a serious problem.
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 18 2014 1:23 PM “It’s Not Every Day That You Can Beat the World Champion” An exclusive interview with chess grandmaster Fabiano Caruana.
Brow Beat
Sept. 18 2014 4:33 PM The Top 5 Dadsplaining Moments From The Cosby Show
Future Tense
Sept. 18 2014 6:48 PM By 2100 the World's Population Could Be 11 Billion
  Health & Science
Sept. 18 2014 3:35 PM Do People Still Die of Rabies? And how do you know if an animal is rabid?
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.