The Physics Behind Olympic Skating

The 2022 Winter Olympics are finally here after four long years. Many sports, such as ice hockey, curling, skiing, figure skating, and all the other winter-related competitions featured in the international tournament will push athletes to dominate the competition.

One of the Winter Olympics’ most popular competitions is figure skating. Many viewers often see this intense activity as athletes just doing graceful tricks and routines on the ice, either solo or with a partner. These audience members are usually focused on technique and how well the skater is executing their routine, but not necessarily the science of how figure skaters find success on the ice. Just like all other things made up of matter, figure skating also has science to explain why and how it works; most prominently, physics. 

Skaters glide across the ice by wearing skates that have a blade on the bottom, digging into the ice. The skater begins to move by pushing themselves off the ice with the edge of the blade, causing an increase in speed and friction between the blade and ice. 

Nathan Chen at 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics | Courtesy of Deseret News

Newton’s second law of motion(force equals mass times acceleration) explains this phenomenon. Without friction, figure skaters would be immobile and the graceful tricks they do throughout their routine would be impossible.

There are two types of momentum: angular and linear. When skaters are moving in a straight line, the product of the skaters’ mass and velocity is considered linear momentum since there is no movement in another direction. However, when skaters start to change direction or spin, the linear momentum that was produced is no longer moving in a straight line, therefore making the momentum angular. 

Along with Newton’s second law of force, Newton’s first law of inertia, (the act of staying in motion unless a force is applied) is also applicable to figure skating. One may notice that when figure skaters spin, they have their arms crossed tightly next to their chest. This action reduces the moment of inertia, causing angular velocity to increase. Due to the small amount of air resistance and friction, the skater’s angular momentum will slightly decrease the longer they spin.

Yuzuru Hanyu Spinning at 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics | Courtesy of The Japan Times

Not only are figure skaters known for spinning, they are also known for jumping quite high. Before jumping, these athletes must skate a small distance in order to build up speed. This speed will help the skater develop the force that they need to push off the ice, generating vertical velocity. The more velocity generated, the more height the skater will reach during their jump. 

Physics is essentially applied math. So, when middle school math teachers are asked the notorious questions of, “how is this relevant,” they can point to figure skating as an example.  

Written by Lorelle Mauricio

Lorelle Mauricio is a sophomore at Mt. Carmel High school. They mostly cover science and entertainment topics, as those are their interests.

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  1. What an amazing article! Clear and concise to understand something most people know how to do but not know why. I guess math and physics are good for something besides school…LOL!

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