Physics behind the 2018 Winter Olympics: The Quad Explained

The Winter Olympics 2018 were an exciting spectacle full of new records and many Colorado winners – did you know that our state won more medals than 81 countries?.  Our Science Galaxy team was especially intrigued by the physics behind some of the great athletic maneuvers. For example, watch Nathan Chen make US history landing multiple quad jumps during his qualifying figure skating performance: 

Let’s take a moment to examine the physics behind one of the most difficult (and famous) tricks in figure skating: the quadruple jump, or “quad”.  Here are our favorite fun facts about the physics of quads:

Boston Herald

First, figure skaters must have enough speed, momentum, angular velocity and pure strength, especially in their legs, to drive themselves in the air to get to the adequate height to be able to perform this skill. Often pure strength and speed is not enough to launch skaters into the appropriate height, so skaters will pick the ice with their toe to launch themselves up.

Once skaters take off from the ice, they must fight forces eight to ten times their body weight of momentary impact forces to begin rotation. And in order to complete the 1440° of rotation needed to qualify as a quadruple jump, skaters must quickly tuck in their arms and legs, even through the intense centripetal force (the same force that pulls you outwards on a fast-spinning playground merry-go-round) begs them not to. If all these elements go perfectly, then comes the last, and perhaps the hardest element: the landing.

The landing remains an act of muscle memory, balance and faith as skaters not only push off the ice backwards but land backwards, and are turning so fast through the air that their eyes are typically closed – so leaving essentially no opportunity to see where they are or place their landing. Even at the Olympics, the landing – the highest level of mastery in sports – is not often executed successfully. When skaters hit the ground, on one leg, backward and balancing on a single blade 4 mm thick, they must throw out their leg not in use backwards and at an angle to distribute their weight enough to balance. Each of these elements require constant instantaneous communication between the skaters brain and body to take into account the innumerable variables they are faced with.

Figure skaters, and the physics of quads, remind us of how remarkable the human body is in its ability to engage with forces of gravity and centripetal force. It also reminds us how all the elements of physical strength, agility, and physics can work together in perfect unison. Like Patrick Chan, 2018 Olympic gold medalist said: I love figure skating and what I am able to express creatively. This is a good reminder that physics is not just formulas and complex math. When examined in real-life scenarios, like the Winter Olympics, physics can inspire us by providing a deeper understanding of the scientific relation of the human body and its environments.


To learn more, check out our sources: Wired Quintuple Video, NBC Olympics Figure Skating, Physics of Centripetal Force, Centripetal force, Math Centre, Physics behind quadruple jumps.

By: Scout Hill & Science Galaxy Team