Figure-skating controversy raises questions

Updated: 2014-01-23 09:53


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When the US Figure Skating Association made the unprecedented decision to ignore the results of the US National Championships last week, choosing fourth-place finisher Ashley Wagner over bronze medalist Mirai Nagasu for a spot on the Sochi Winter Olympic team, critics were quick to question why.

Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Jeff Yang cited Wagner's "flowing blond hair, bellflower-blue eyes and sculpted features" as an embodiment of the "golden girl" sporting archetype.

"Given the dramatic and unprecedented nature of USFS's decision, it's hard not to see other reasons for the slight — conscious or unconscious," Yang wrote. "No one wants to drag the specter of race, jingoism and xenophobia into the arena of sport, but let's face it, in any country versus competition, it's there anyway."

He recalled the 1998 MSNBC headline "American Beats Kwan," announcing Tara Lipinski's nationals win over Chinese American Michelle Kwan, born and raised in California. An earlier Newsweek article had mused on Japanese American Kristi Yamaguchi's ascent in the figure skating world: "What's a good ole boy to do if there's not only a Toyota in the driveway and a Sony in the bedroom and a Mitsubishi in the family room — but on the screen there, as the band plays the ‘Star-Spangled Banner,' is the All-American girl of 1992, and her name is Yamaguchi?"

Only four times have national championship medalists been left off the Olympic team, and in each case injury was the deciding factor: Todd Eldredge in 1992, Nancy Kerrigan in 1994, pairs skaters Jenni Meno and Todd Sand in 1998, and Michelle Kwan in 2006.

But Mirai Nagasu performed beautifully at this year's championships, and is the only top US skater to have previously attended the Olympics, finishing fourth at the 2010 Vancouver Games. Her usurper, Ashley Wagner, failed to complete a triple-triple combination jump and fell twice in a program she herself later called "embarrassing."

According to the association's selection procedures, an athlete's body of work in the previous two seasons determines eligibility, and Wagner's performance in seven competitions last year was admittedly more consistent. Wagner, 22, won the championship in 2012 and 2013; Nagasu, 20, was national champion in 2008.

It's worth noting that other Asian Americans were selected for the 2014 Olympic figure skating team, a fact the USFS pointed out itself in an angry denial of Yang's assertions in the Journal article.

"US Figure Skating takes very seriously any implied reference that there was discrimination in the selection," said Barbara Reichert, communications director of the association, in an official statement this week. "USFS firmly stands behind its process, the athlete selection procedures for the 2014 Olympic Winter Games, and the selections made regarding the athletes nominated to the team."

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