By Pritha Sarkar
(Reuters) - Men's figure skating has been caught up in an airborne whirl lately - as the number of quadruple jumps being landed is rapidly mounting with each competition.
As thrilling as it is to see teenagers Nathan Chen or Shoma Uno cram in as many aerial revolutions as humanly possible into their high-risk jumps, Canada's Patrick Chan believes there is a risk of injury, although he fears the governing body ISU will not take action until "somebody actually does get hurt".
Earlier this month at the world championships in Helsinki, Chan landed three quadruple jumps in a free skate for the first time in his career but even that was not good enough for a medal.
Instead the medals went to Japanese sensations Yuzuru Hanyu (gold) and Uno (silver) and China's Jin Boyang. For the first time at the worlds, four quads had been executed by each of the medalists in their long programs.
"For me skating is a whole different world than it is in Japan. In Japan skating is like NHL hockey in Canada or baseball in the U.S. So pushing the limit is very enticing. Skating is their lives," Chan told Reuters in an interview ahead of this week's World Team Trophy in Tokyo.
"I have a life outside of skating. I want to extend my career other than what I do in competition.
"I’m going to stick to what I can do... because if I try and ... do the impossible, I will either get too frustrated to the point where I won’t enjoy the sport anymore or I will get hurt and maybe have to get hip replacements at age 30."
Holding on to his original body parts is non-negotiable for the 26-year-old Chan, who was almost 20 when he mastered his first quad -- the toeloop.
In an attempt to keep pace with the teen brigade, Chan has been forced to retrain his body in his mid 20s and has added a quad Salchow to his arsenal.
But even that has not been enough.
Chan was in awe after watching American Chen win this year's Four Continents title by landing four different quads, and five in total, in his free skate.
However, Chan has no aspirations to follow suit even with the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics looming next February.
"The advantage of a 17-year-old like Nathan and Shoma ... (is that) there is a bit of disconnect between the toll their bodies are physically going through and the connection to the brain where it’s sending the pain," said Chan, who won a hat-trick of world titles from 2011 to 2013.
"Even if there’s an injury, because you are young ... your body is really efficient at recovering quickly and masking potential injuries.
"However, we are treading into the unknown when it comes to men’s skating. Maybe they (the ISU) need to limit the amount of quads you can do in the long program.
"But I don’t think that will happen until somebody actually does get hurt."
Chan rolled his eyes when he heard Olympic champion Hanyu claim "scientifically... five rotations in the air is a possibility".
To fit in that extra revolution, skaters would need to jump higher, spin faster and stay airborne longer than the current average of 0.7 seconds.
And with the tyros determined to push their nimble bodies further -- it is not inconceivable that the next frontiers will soon be conquered -- be it a quad-Axel (requiring 4-1/2 rotations), a quad-quad combination or even a quintuple jump.
"When I won worlds (in 2011)... I thought there was no way anyone would do a quad Lutz in my lifetime, let alone during my career. But I was proven wrong," said Chan, who hopes to add a quad flip to his repertoire in time for the Olympics.
"So maybe a quint will happen but jeez, I for sure will not be able to do that because my body will not be able to handle that."
So is the accumulative points system, which replaced the now-defunct 6.0 scoring method following the 2002 Olympics judging scandal, to blame for the sport becoming an exhibition in power-jumping?
Skaters can rack up points for executing more and more quads.
During the worlds, Chen attempted a record eight quads over two programs and earned a whopping 19.47 points for his quadruple Lutz-triple toeloop combination in his short skate -- the highest score awarded in Helsinki for a single element.
"The judging system is along for the ride as opposed to leading us to add more quads. The men’s field have taken it and morphed it to their strengths," Chan said.
However, the rapidly changing landscape in men's figure skating means that the artistic and aesthetically pleasing performers, such as Chan and two-times world champion Javier Fernandez, may soon become an extinct breed.
"Unfortunately... I definitely don’t see another Javi or another me coming up in the world of skating. I see a lot of Boyangs and lot of Shomas coming up in the sport in the junior level," Chan said.
"That’s the direction dictated by the judges and how the events are being judged."
(Reporting by Pritha Sarkar, editing by Toby Davis)