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Jamie Squire, Getty Images
Jamie Squire, Getty Images

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.

No other female skater in the 2018 Games is attempting a triple axel, but athletes like Nagasu will continue to challenge what's considered possible.

[h/t NBC]

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Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism
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olympics
The POW Olympics of World War II
Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism
Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism

With the outbreak of World War II prompting a somber and divisive mood across the globe, it seemed impossible civility could be introduced in time for the 1940 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan to be held.

So they weren’t. Neither were the 1944 Games, which were scheduled for London. But one Polish Prisoner of War camp was determined to keep the tradition alive. The Woldenberg Olympics were made up entirely of war captives who wanted—and needed—to feel a sense of camaraderie and normalcy in their most desperate hours.

In a 2004 NBC mini-documentary that aired during their broadcast of the Games, it was reported that Polish officers under German control in the Oflag II-C camp wanted to maintain their physical conditioning as a tribute to Polish athlete Janusz Kusocinski. Unlike another Polish POW camp that held unofficial Games under a veil of secrecy in 1940, the guards of Woldenberg allowed the ’44 event to proceed with the provision that no fencing, archery, javelin, or pole-vaulting competitions took place. (Perhaps the temptation to impale their captors would have proven too much for the men.)

Music, art, and sculptures were put on display. Detainees were also granted permission to make their own program and even commemorative postage stamps of the event courtesy of the camp’s homegrown “post office.” An Olympic flag was crafted out of spare bed sheets, which the German officers, in a show of contagious sportsman’s spirit, actually saluted.

The hand-made Olympic flag from Woldenberg.

Roughly 369 of the 7000 prisoners participated. Most of the men competed in multiple contests, which ranged from handball and basketball to chess. Boxing was included—but owing to the fragile state of prisoners, broken bones resulted in a premature end to the combat.

Almost simultaneously, another Polish POW camp in Gross Born (pop: 3000) was holding their own ceremony. Winners received medals made of cardboard. Both were Oflag sites, which were primarily for officers; it’s been speculated the Games were allowed because German forces had respect for prisoners who held military titles.

A gymnastics demonstration in the camp.

The grass-roots Olympics in both camps took place in July and August 1944. By January 1945, prisoners from each were evacuated. An unknown number perished during these “death marches,” but one of the flags remained in the possession of survivor Antoni Grzesik. The Lieutenant donated it to the Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism in 1974, where it joined a flag recovered from the 1940 Games. Both remain there today—symbols of a sporting life that kept hope alive for thousands of men who, for a brief time, could celebrate life instead of lamenting its loss.

Additional Sources: “The Olympic Idea Transcending War [PDF],” Olympic Review, 1996; “The Olympic Movement Remembered in the Polish Prisoner of War Camps in 1944 [PDF],” Journal of Olympic History, Spring 1995; "Olympics Behind Barbed Wire," Journal of Olympic History, March 2014.

 All images courtesy of Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism. 

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Quinn Rooney, Getty Images
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Big Questions
How Do You Steer a Bobsled?
 Quinn Rooney, Getty Images
Quinn Rooney, Getty Images

Now that the Olympics are well underway, you might have developed a few questions about the games' equipment. For example: How does one steer a bobsled? Let's take a crack at answering this pressing query.

How do you steer a bobsled?

Bobsled teams careen down an icy, curving track at up to 90 miles per hour, so steering is no small concern. Drivers steer their sleds just like you steered your childhood sleds—by manipulating a pair of ropes connected to the sled's steel runners. The driver also gets help from the rest of the crew members, who shift their weight to aid with the steering.

Why do speed skaters wear glasses?

speed-skating

Speed skaters can fly around the ice at upwards of 40 mph, so those sunglasses-type specs they wear aren't merely ornamental. At such high speeds, it's not very pleasant to have wind blowing in your eyes; it's particularly nightmarish if the breeze is drying out your contact lenses. On top of that, there's all sorts of ice and debris flying around on a speed skating track that could send you on a fast trip to the ophthalmologist.

Some skaters also say the glasses help them see the track. American skater Ryan Bedford recently told the Saginaw News that his tinted shades help him focus on the track and filter out distracting lights and camera flashes from the crowd.

What kind of heat are the biathletes packing?

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As you might guess, there are fairly strict rules governing what sort of rifles biathletes carry on the course. They are equipped with guns chambered for .22 LR ammunition. The gun must weigh at least 3.5 kilograms without its magazines and ammunition, and the rifle has to have a bolt action or a straight-pull bolt rather than firing automatically or semi-automatically.

Is a curling stone really made of stone?

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You bet it is, and it's not just any old stone, either. Curling enthusiasts swear by a very specific type of granite called ailsite that is only found on the Scottish island of Ailsa Craig. Ailsite supposedly absorbs less water than other types of stone, so they last longer than their competitors.

Ailsa Craig is now a wildlife sanctuary, so no new ailsite has been quarried since 2002. As a result, curling stones are incredibly expensive. Kays of Scotland, which has made the stones for every Olympics in which curling has been an official event, gets prices upwards of $1,500 per stone.

What about the brooms?

The earliest curling brooms were actual brooms made of wood with straw heads. Modern brooms, though, are a bit more technologically advanced. The handles are usually made of carbon fiber, and the heads can be made of synthetic materials or natural hair from horses or hogs. Synthetic materials tend to be more common now because they pull all of the debris off of the ice and don't drop the occasional stray bristle like a natural hair broom might.

What are the ski jumpers wearing?

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It may look like a ski jumper can pull on any old form-fitting bodysuit and hit the mountain, but things are a bit more complicated than that. Their suits have to be made of a spongy material and can't be thicker than five millimeters. Additionally, the suits must allow a certain amount of air to pass through them; jumpers wearing suits without sufficient air permeability are disqualified. (This rule keeps jumpers from wearing suits that could unfairly act as airfoils.) These rules are seriously enforced, too; Norwegian skier Sigurd Petterson found himself DQed at the 2006 Torino Games due to improper air permeability.

Those aren't the only concerns, though. In 2010, judges disqualified Italian jumper Roberto Dellasega because his suit was too baggy.

What's up with the short track speed skaters' gloves?

Gloves
Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

If you watch a bit of short track speed skating, the need for gloves quickly becomes apparent. When the skaters go to make passes or careen around a turn, they need the gloves to keep from cutting their hands due to incidental contact with other skaters' blades.

There's more to the gloves than just safety, though. Since the skaters' hands often touch the ice during turns, they need hard fingertip coverings that won't add friction and slow them down. The tips can be made of any material as long as it's hard and smooth, but you've got to give American skater Apolo Ohno some style points for the gold-tipped left glove he broke out in 2010.

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