Men's figure skating has mess on its hands (and knees, and butts)

  Shoma Uno (left) and Nathan Chen on the ice after falls in the Grand Prix Final. (Getty Images)

Shoma Uno (left) and Nathan Chen on the ice after falls in the Grand Prix Final. (Getty Images)

The Grand Prix and Challenger Series events ended last weekend, moving this Olympic figure skating season into the national championship phase (the first two of note are Russia, Dec. 19-24 in Saint Petersburg and Japan, Dec. 20-24 in Tokyo.)

There are big questions related to each.  Will injured reigning world champion Evgenia Medvedeva compete in the Russian Championships? Will injured reigning world and Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu be ready for Japanese nationals, which now doesn't seem likely given a Japanese federation official saying Wednesday that Hanyu may be sidelined longer than expected?

A 2018 Olympic spot for each should be a foregone conclusion, notwithstanding the unanswered questions about eligibility for all Russian athletes.  Given that Medvedeva did not compete at the Sochi Olympics, the epicenter of current Russian doping issues, and given that she has had no doping positives, nothing but injury should keep her from competing in Pyeongchang.

The Grand Prix Series also has left other unanswered questions.  Here are a few involving men’s singles (I’ll get to women, pairs and dance later in the week):

1.  Can any men’s skater with a quad-laden program do two clean skates (by clean, I mean no negative grades of execution) – or even one without major errors, like doubling planned quads - in an upper-level international competition?

Other than quad-less Misha Ge of Uzbekhistan at the French International, none of the top three men in any of the seven 2017 Grand Prix events did two clean performances.  The last two World Championships were similarly flawed, and the fear is the Olympic free skate may turn into a repeat of the Sochi 2014 slop fest.

The Grand Prix Final free skate performances, with falls from all but Russia’s Sergei Voronov (who botched a quad toe landing but stayed upright) already are a bad omen.  Winner Nathan Chen of the U.S. fell once in the free skate; runner-up Shoma Uno of Japan fell once in each program.

Since Hanyu’s otherworldly, flawless brilliance at the 2015 Grand Prix Final (his lowest positive GOE there was 1.14) and NHK Trophy, just two medalists other than Ge have had back-to-back clean programs at worlds, Europeans, Four Continents or the Grand Prix.  (My French colleague, Paul Peret, checked the ten 2017 Challenger Series events and found only top finisher, quad-less winner Jorik Hendrickx of Belgium at Nebelhorn, was clean in both programs.)

Russia’s Maxim Kovtun had no negative grades of execution and two quads in each program while winning silver at the 2017 Europeans.  Adam Rippon of the U.S. had no negative GOEs while winning bronze at the 2016 Trophee de France, where he landed a quad toe in the free skate - his only clean quad in the past four seasons (more on that later.)

Chen was clean in both skates (with an aggregate seven quads) at the 2017 U.S. Championships, including his landmark five-quad free skate, but he has been unable to avoid big mistakes since.

So what to do?   Removing 30 seconds and a jumping pass from the free skate, the plan beginning next season, probably won’t have an impact other than cramming more stuff into less time, a rush that undoubtedly will lead to more errors.

At the risk of putting a regulator on progress and on pushing the envelope, motivations for elite athletes in any sport, limiting the number of quad attempts (three in the free skate? one in the short program?) would seem a place to start.  It is time to rein in a quad revolution that has accelerated at a dizzying pace, in both attempts and splats, since the 2014 Olympics.

Quads are the source of most major mistakes.  (Not to mention a source of injuries.) The new skating stats web site, skatingscores.com, calculated success rate on three types of quads (lutz, flip, loop) in the six Grand Prix events before the final and, as it reported in tweets, found 59.6 percent of the 42 attempts received a negative GOE - many severely negative.

In updated stats including the Grand Prix Final, Skating Scores found there were 226 jumping passes with quads of any type (not including planned quads that skaters had reduced to triples, doubles or singles) on the Grand Prix circuit.  Once again, nearly 60 percent (59.7) got a negative GOE, and 28.8 percent got the lowest possible GOE.

Beyond that, the energy needed to execute multiple quads in a program often takes away from commitment to artistry.

Are quads really a wow moment?  In real time, most watchers will rarely be able to tell the difference between a quad and a triple, but everyone can see a fall.  No matter how quickly skaters pick themselves up, one fall leaves a meh feeling about the performance.  A second fall makes the program feel slapstick.

The athletic prowess involved in successful quads is fantastic.  Seeing skaters often become human Zambonis with unsuccessful ones is off-putting.  For me, the latter now is more significant than the former.

2.  Mediocre skating by both Rippon and Jason Brown at the Grand Prix Final left two of the three men’s Olympic singles spots on the U.S. team up for grabs at the nationals in early January, with Max Aaron and Vincent Zhou the prime contenders.  (The first belongs to Chen, no questions asked.)

Both Aaron and Zhou are capable of landing the quads Rippon and Brown lack.   But Zhou, runner-up at last season’s nationals, was below mediocre on the Grand Prix circuit.  Aaron was respectable at one Grand Prix, poor at the other.

3.  Rippon’s record on quads is dramatic evidence of the often negative effect they can have on individual skaters.

Rippon has tried to build the technical base value of his programs by attempting the quad lutz. But it’s clear that this task has become Sisyphean for him – and its physical risk has become greater than its score sheet reward.

When Rippon fell on a downgraded quad lutz to open his free skate at the Grand Prix Final, it was his 10th failure in 10 attempts on the jump beginning with the 2014-15 season.

Six have ended in falls (it would be seven but for the caller’s largesse at Skate America).  Six have been called downgraded, and the other four called under-rotated.

 Adam Rippon after his fall on a quadruple lutz in the Grand Prix Final.  

Adam Rippon after his fall on a quadruple lutz in the Grand Prix Final.  

The quad lutz has a base value of 13.6.  After rotation shortcomings and grade of execution were applied, only once has Rippon received a score for the element higher than 6.5 (an 8.3).  His other scores were a 6.5, two 5.5s, a 4.9 and five 3.9s.

Despite the badly flawed quad lutz (worth 3.9) at Skate America, Rippon managed to beat current quad king Chen in the free skate because Chen had his worst technical free skate in his 10 competitions this season and last.  (Chen won the event because of his enormous margin over a quad-less Rippon in the short program.)  But even a fully-rotated quad lutz in a clean skate likely won’t be enough for Rippon to beat one-mistake free skates by the likes of Chen, Uno, Hanyu, Javier Fernandez of Spain and Jin Boyang of China.

The problem is Rippon has few options if he wants to eschew the quad.  The easiest change would be replacing it with a double axel in the second half of the program, when that jump would have a base value of 3.63 and could get up to 1.5 points more for execution.  Those numbers don’t look so low when you consider his average score for the 10 quad lutzes is just 4.42 when deductions for falls are included.

Quad-less, clean programs probably would give Rippon a place on the U.S. Olympic team and even a tiny chance at an Olympic medal if most of the men’s free skates in Pyeongchang are as sloppy a mess as they were when Hanyu won in Sochi.  Eschewing the quad lutz also should give Rippon a better chance to reach South Korea in one piece if he makes the U.S. team.

The injury issue should be more of a factor than the math.  Rippon, who missed the latter half of last season with a foot injury, dislocated a shoulder on the hands-on-ice landing of the botched quad lutz that opened his free skate at Skate America.  With a fall rate of 62 percent for the 10 quad lutzes and three quad toes he has attempted competitively over the last four seasons (and who knows how many more in practice?), the chance for further injury seems considerable.

Are judges giving Rippon credit – in terms of benefit on his other elements - simply for attempting a quad?  They would never admit it, of course, but it does not seem that far-fetched in an era when quad jumps are the litmus test for elite male skaters.

One should respect Rippon, 28, not only for his admirable competitiveness in trying a quad, but also in trying the hardest one anyone has landed.  Yet it is clear he views competition differently from many others.

 “What I love about competing is I love performing,” Rippon said at Skate America.

So far, his quad attempts have only detracted from his performances.  Sometimes, as the old saw goes, discretion is the better part of valor.