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Winning Isn't Everything

Why Has US Ladies Bronze Medalist Mirai Nagasu Been Shut Out of the Olympics?

by M.G. PIETY

Despite the fact Mirai Nagasu won the bronze medal in the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Boston last weekend, her Olympic dreams have been sacrificed in favor of fourth-place finisher Ashley Wagner’s. Only three women get to go to Sochi, and U.S. Figure Skating (USFS), the official governing body of the sport, decides who. Traditionally, it’s the top finishers at the national championships. Occasionally, however, an older, more experienced skater who just had an off day at the nationals is chosen over a younger skater.

Few in the skating community would question the wisdom of sending Wagner, who’s built a solid international reputation. But why did they sacrifice Nagasu rather than newcomer Polina Edmunds, who won the silver medal? Edmunds unquestionably wowed the crowd with her performance, but she was less than perfect and fell once. Yes, she placed higher than Nagasu, but she’s new to senior-level competition. Nagasu has far more competitive experience. including a fourth-place finish at the 2010 Olympics. To send Edmonds to Sochi instead of Nagasu not only violates common sense, it violates a longstanding USFS tradition.

USFS’s decisions have long been controversial. For example, Brian Boitano outperformed everyone at the senior men’s competition at the 1982 United States Figure Skating Championships. According to Scott Hamilton, however, Boitano was kept off the podium simply because he was the new kid on the block. David Santee, writes Hamilton in his autobiography, Landing It: My Life on and Off the Ice (Kensington, 1999), was given “lifetime achievement marks” for his substandard performance. That is, his marks were inflated because of his status in the sport, because he had been around a long time and had proven that he could perform at the international level. “When judges are forming the world team,” writes Hamilton, “they tend to make allowances for the betterment of the team and are willing to cut someone a little slack if they believe they will represent the country well and contend for a medal … David was the reigning world silver medalist who had a good reputation with international judges, and I think everyone in the building knew this was his last shot” (p. 140).

Fortunately, the marks for the ladies at this year’s nationals seemed more or less in line with how people actually skated. Edmunds probably deserved her silver medal, despite her fall. But does she deserve to go to the Olympics? She’s only 15. Nagasu is 20, is a former national champion (2008), and narrowly missed winning the bronze medal at the 2010 Olympics. None of the women selected for this year’s team has any Olympic experience. Edmunds could easily make both the 2018 and the 2022 Olympics, but this is more than likely Nagasu’s last chance. To send an inexperienced 15 year old to the Olympics instead of an experienced 20-year old national medalist makes no sense–or does it?

Edmunds’ mother is Russian, and this may incline USFS to hope that the Russian public will respond well to her. There is an ineradicably subjective element in the judging of all sports that have an aesthetic dimension. The opinions of the judges about the general merits of a skater are often influenced by the public’s reception of that skater. If the Russian public likes little Polina, then the judges will probably like her, too.

There may be more, though, behind USFS’s decision. David Glynn, Edmunds’ primary coach, is quoted in an article in the New York Times, written Saturday while USFS was deciding which women to send to Sochi, as saying, “[t]his is the toughest competition of the year. Whoever can be one of the top three goes to the Olympics.” But legendary coach Frank Carroll, who also works with Edmunds, said in this same article that while Polina is “the future,” at the Olympics,“[w]e need people who have reputations and who are the best.”

Nagasu has a reputation, but that may be part of her problem. Her competitive history has been erratic. That, speculates John Powers in The Boston Globe, is probably what kept her off the Sochi team. Nagasu was back in force this weekend though. She received a standing ovation for her moving performance.

Nagasu has shown she can deliver in international competition, but she’s also shown that she’s not the typical toe-the-line skater, such as David Santee was, that USFS favors. She not only tends to be more candid in interviews than USFS likes its skaters to be, but she actually showed up at the national championships without a coach — which is almost unheard of in the sport. Nagasu, who initially challenged the official decision to leave her off the Sochi team, may just be a little too anti-authoritarian for USFS, an organization that prizes loyalty above all else.

That is the only reason I can think of for Scott Hamilton’s dismissive reaction to Nagasu’s announcement that she was going to appeal the USFS decision. Hamilton, who was an NBC announcer for the event, sniffed that the officials at U.S. Figure Skating had the discretion to select the athletes for the team and that there was, therefore, really nothing to challenge.

But Hamilton reacted to USFS’s decision to send Wagner to Sochi by observing that she had “earned her spot” with her earlier placements at international-level competitions. Why the double standard? Hasn’t Nagasu also earned her spot? Or is there more to earning a spot than Hamilton is willing to admit?

M.G. Piety teaches philosophy at Drexel University. She is the editor and translator of Soren Kierkegaard’s Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs. Her latest book is: Ways of Knowing: Kierkegaard’s Pluralist Epistemology. She is currently working on a book on skating entitled Sequins and Scandals: Reflections on Figure Skating, Culture, and the Philosophy of Sport, that will be out in January from Gegensatz Press. She can be reached at: mgpiety@drexel.edu