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DID too much emphasis on RATINGS and HYPE cost an American skater a chance at the OLYMPICS?

I just found this story on the US Olympic figure skaters and I am profoundly disturbed.

Here is the report by Jeff Yang at the Wall Street Journal blog and here is another report at NESN by Alison Smith I found that has some disturbing aspects to it embedded that raise questions.  Let’s start with the facts as reported by both reporters:

I’m talking about fans of Mirai Nagasu, the 20-year-old figure skater whose Olympic hopes were dashed this week when U.S. Figure Skating made the shocking decision to ignore her bronze medal in the U.S. National Championships — the event that traditionally determines the candidates selected as Olympians — and instead pick 22-year-old Ashley Wagner, who placed a distant fourth after falling twice in her routines, for the team that would represent America in Sochi.

It’s worth underscoring how significant this snub was: USFS has never in history ignored the results of the Nationals in picking its Olympic athletes when injury was not a factor.

***

So why was Wagner ultimately chosen over Nagasu? The skating federation pointed to Nagasu’s spotty record over the past 12 months, and to Wagner’s higher overall standing in global rankings. But given the dramatic and unprecedented nature of USFS’s decision, it’s hard not to see other reasons for the slight — conscious or unconscious.

Now from the other article:

Wagner fell twice during a routine she called “embarrassing,” yet she was selected to represent the United States on the biggest sports stage of all. The last four times the top national championship finishers didn’t skate in the Olympics was because of injury, but the rules allow the U.S. Figure Skating Association to base its final decision on a skater’s “body of work” from the past year. That body of work carries a significant but nonspecific amount of weight, according to the Los Angeles Times.
“I didn’t really show up when the world was watching,” Wagner said. “Skating needs someone who will show up when the world is watching. I was terrified that I was going to have something to regret. I’m so incredibly honored to be named to this team. I am grateful that my federation was able to look beyond one really bad performance and see that athlete that I’m capable of being.”
In the end, it’s possible the decision came down to reputation and marketability. The skating association and NBC have been marketing Wagner heavily ahead of the 2014 games, according to the New York Times.
Here’s what Yang’s unspoken but clear conclusion was:  An Asian US skater did not fit in to the tiny blonde “ice princess” image the network and US officials wanted for USA Skating.  Now I did see Gracie Gold this morning on Today and she is striking and a perfect image for marketing the sport.  America will fall in love with Gold.  But she earned it at nationals with the gold medal.
I am not sure it was racism, overt or covert.  I think this decision could be something worse than that:  The overemphasis on TV ratings and popularity overshadowing the Olympic Games.  That was a factor in the now infamous attempt to ban wrestling at the Games.  The Smith article admits that marketing and reputation may have played a role in the decision to select Wagner and snub Nagasu.  And technically, the USFSA did act within the rules.  But it seems that this rule was designed to prevent a wooden application of the winners at nationals to bind the selection for the Olympic team when it was clear another deserved it.  But it is profoundly disturbing.
Seems to me that Wagner’s falls on a national stage when by her own admission “…the world was watching” ought to have given the third place to Nagasu.  But figure skating is not my field.  I could be wrong.  I will remain suspicious of anything that looks like favoritism concerning the Olympics when it affects ratings and hype.
Upon further research, I was impressed with these two explanations, one from the New Yorker and one from the Boston Globe that say that Wagner was consistently better overall:
Many observers cried foul, noting the unprecedented nature of the decision, and its tidy results: the team now had an ideal trio heading into Sochi—a skater actually named Gracie Gold; a fifteen-year-old upstart, Edmunds, who is already earning comparisons to the past American sweetheart Tara Lipinski; and Wagner, who is the national face of the sport and already a centerpiece of NBC’s Olympics coverage. Nagasu, meanwhile, came in fourth place during the 2010 Vancouver Olympics but has skated unevenly in the years since. She competed in Boston without a coach, a choice that figure-skating insiders greeted as if it were some obvious sign of derangement. “Though I may not agree with it, I have to respect the decision the federation made,” Nagasu said. Never mind that she was the only skater among the top four who hadn’t fallen during her final routine.
Then came Nagasu, who has been a loose wire for her entire career. Her placements at the national championships have been all over the chart: 1-5-2-3-7-7-3. Last year, after placing third in the short, Nagasu came 11th in the long. “It’s been quite a roller-coaster ride since the last Olympic nationals,” she acknowledged. That probably was what kept Nagasu from a return trip. The selectors had no clue about which Mirai would show up in Sochi. They had a decidedly better idea about Wagner. “I’m happy that my federation was able to see beyond one bad skate,” she said.
But still, I cannot help but think this was a preordained selection for Wagner due to hype and ratings.  The Olympic leadership in our country gets no pass from me until they renounce sports imperialism.

About Elwood Sanders

Elwood "Sandy" Sanders is a Hanover attorney who is an Appellate Procedure Consultant for Lantagne Legal Printing and has written ten scholarly legal articles. Sandy was also Virginia's first Appellate Defender and also helped bring curling in VA! (None of these titles imply any endorsement of Sanders’ views)

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