Just How Hard Is It to Execute a Triple Axel in Figure Skating?

Jamie Squire, Getty Images
Jamie Squire, Getty Images

In the 19th century, figure skating was a very literal term: Athletes were expected to carve elaborate figures into the ice while maintaining their physical composure. Before long, innovative skaters began adding jumps to their routines, and the difficult aerial maneuvers quickly became the focal points of the programs.

Norwegian speed skater Axel Paulsen invented the axel in 1882. Of the six types of jumps now performed in the sport, the axel is the only one in which a skater takes off in a forward motion. In a single axel, the skater builds momentum leading to the jump, takes off from one skate's forward outside edge, turns 1.5 times in the air, and lands backward on the opposite skate's outside edge. The landing foot absorbs impact forces of eight to 10 times the skater's body weight. A double axel demands 2.5 rotations; a triple, 3.5. (Landing a triple is worth 8.5 points in a skater’s base score, while a double is only 3.3 points.)

An axel is a required element in today's skating routines—you can't win a medal without it. The top male skaters land triple axels, while top female skaters do doubles. Just a handful of women have completed a triple axel in Olympic competition—Japanese skaters Midori Ito in 1992 and Mao Asada in 2010 and 2014, and now American skater Mirai Nagasu at the 2018 Winter Games.

To the untrained eye, it looks like the human version of spinning a coin on its side. But the physics, athleticism, and preparation involved make it one of the most difficult efforts in the Games.

To perfect a double or triple axel, athletes and their coaches need to pay attention to biomechanics. Inertia, or the degree to which their body mass is spread out in space, will affect how fast they can spin in the air. By contracting their body as much as possible, skaters increase their chances for faster rotational movement. They also need to pay attention to mass—specifically, that their competition attire doesn’t weigh them down any more than necessary. Nagasu’s team reduced the number of rhinestones and even factored in the weight of the glue used to make sure the skater wasn’t going to be slowed down by even a few extra ounces of weight.

In landing the triple axel, Nagasu has also defied traditional thinking about an inherent disadvantage for women: Because they tend to have wider hips and chests than men, contracting their bodies for rotation is more difficult.

Perceived limitations in sports—like the four-minute mile, long thought to be impossible—are often broken by determined athletes who overcome pessimism with practice. While many skaters performed single axels in the early 20th century, American gold medalist Dick Button pushed the envelope by landing the first double axel at the Winter Olympics in 1948. Canadian Vern Taylor landed the first triple axel at the 1978 World Figure Skating Championships. In the 21st century, the world's elite skaters are landing quadruple backward-takeoff jumps.

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Tommie Smith and John Carlos Shocked the World—and Sacrificed Their Careers—By Protesting Racism at the 1968 Olympics

American athlete Tommie Smith, wearing black socks, celebrates after crossing the finish line of the men's 200-meter final ahead of Australian Peter Norman and compatriot John Carlos during the Mexico Olympic Games.
American athlete Tommie Smith, wearing black socks, celebrates after crossing the finish line of the men's 200-meter final ahead of Australian Peter Norman and compatriot John Carlos during the Mexico Olympic Games.
EPU/AFP via Getty Images

On October 16, 1968, track and field stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos stepped onto the Olympic podium in Mexico City to receive their medals for the 200-meter dash; Smith had won the gold, Carlos the bronze. They were wearing black socks—no shoes—and badges that read “Olympic Project for Human Rights.” Smith had also donned a black scarf, while Carlos had unzipped his jacket (which was against Olympic rules) and slung a long string of beads around his neck.

When “The Star-Spangled Banner” began to blare through the stadium, the two athletes bowed their heads and each raised a black-gloved fist into the air. While the crowd recognized the gesture as the familiar Black Power salute, Smith claimed it was a "human rights" salute. Regardless of what they wanted to call it, that it was meant as a protest against racism wasn’t lost on anyone; a stunned silence fell over the stadium.

“There’s something awful about hearing 50,000 people go silent, like being in the eye of a hurricane,” Carlos later wrote in his memoir.

In the Eye of a Hurricane

According to The Washington Post, it wasn't long before the momentary stillness yielded to a swell of jeers and boos, with some spectators even shouting the words to the national anthem in a sort of counter-protest. Smith and Carlos were ushered out of the arena and swiftly evicted from the Olympic Village. Before returning to the U.S., Smith appeared in an ABC news segment that aired the following day. The interviewer, ABC sports editor Howard Cosell, kept his question short and open-ended.

tommie smith and john carlos 1968 olympic medal ceremony
From left to right: Peter Norman, Tommie Smith, and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympic medal ceremony for the 200-meter dash.
AFP via Getty Images

“Tommie, would you explain to the people of America exactly what you did and why you did it?” he asked.

Smith explained that their gloved fists “signified the power in Black America,” and their shoeless feet were a symbol of the poverty that Black Americans faced. (As for why each man only wore one glove, Smith stated that it was a mark of “black unity.” But Peter Norman, the Australian silver medalist with them on the podium, later claimed one of the Americans had simply forgotten his pair of gloves, so they shared them).

The Gathering Storm

Though the protest itself had been planned just before the ceremony, in the year leading up to the event, Smith, Carlos, and other athletes had already been using the Summer Olympics as a platform to further the goals of the civil rights movement. In October 1967, Dr. Harry Edwards founded the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR), whose mission was originally to protest segregation in the U.S.

According to Global Sport Matters, Smith and Carlos were the first athletes to join, and the organization’s objectives became more global as it expanded. The OPHR had demanded, for example, that South Africa be banned from participating in the Olympics as long as it remained under apartheid, that Olympic teams hire more Black coaches, and that International Olympic Committee chairman Avery Brundage—who had failed to condemn Nazism during the 1936 Olympics, among other controversies—resign his position. Not all of their conditions were met immediately, though Brundage did step down from his position following the next Olympics. But South Africa was prohibited from the ’68 games, and coaching staffs did diversify a little in the following years.

In the months leading up to the Mexico City Olympics, the political atmosphere grew increasingly more turbulent. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April 1968, Senator Robert F. Kennedy was killed just two months later, and thousands of people across the country were rioting to protest both racial injustice and the Vietnam War. Other countries were dealing with similar unrest: In May, students in France rioted against their conservative government; the Soviet Union quelled a Czechoslovakian rebellion in August; and, just 10 days before the Olympic Opening Ceremony, the Mexican military killed scores—possibly hundreds or even thousands—of students at a rally in Mexico City.

Compared to the violence occurring around the world, Smith and Carlos’s small, peaceful protest seemed innocuous, but it definitely wasn’t without backlash. Many journalists seemed embarrassed that American athletes had shone a spotlight on the nation’s domestic issues in front of a global audience, and asserted they shouldn’t have tried to use the Olympics as a “problem-solving platform,” as Los Angeles Sentinel reporter Booker Griffin put it.

Within Black communities, however, the response was celebratory, especially among young people; according to The Undefeated, thousands of Howard University students congregated in Washington, D.C., to welcome Carlos back from Mexico City.

“From this day forward, Black people will pick their own heroes,” civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael (also known as Kwame Ture) declared at the gathering.

The eventual awakening

Olympic officials were not as impressed by the duo's actions. Echoing the sentiments of condemnatory journalists, the IOC suspended both Smith and Carlos from the U.S. track team. They both played professional football for one year before pursuing careers as track coaches.

Tommie Smith and John Carlos accept the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage at the 2008 ESPY Awards in Los Angeles, California.
Tommie Smith and John Carlos accept the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage at the 2008 ESPY Awards in Los Angeles, California.
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

History.com reports that silver medalist Peter Norman, who wore an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge on his chest during the ceremony, was not asked to compete for Australia in the 1972 Olympics, even though he qualified. When he died in 2006, Smith and Carlos were pallbearers at Norman's funeral.

In 2019, more than half a century after their controversial show of support for the civil rights movement, the two American track stars were inducted into the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Hall of Fame.

"I knew that I did the right thing," Carlos told KOAA News5 at the time. "I feel as proud today as I did that day. I'm just so happy that so many people have woken up to it today.”