From my post on the announcement on the American Olympic team, you would know that the U.S. Figure Skating Association made a very unusual decision to name Ashley Wagner, who placed 4th at Nationals, to the Olympic team in lieu of Mirai Nagasu who placed 3rd. In this Slate article on the Harding/Kerrigan incident and the marketability of athletes, the author suspects that this decision might have something to do with how Wagner’s been played up in the media lately. Others, on the other hand, suspect that race might be the issue.
Personally, I find this talk of of the Wagner/Nagasu controversy a little frustrating partly because 1) the USFSA has somewhat set themselves up for it by the way they construct their Olympic/World Championship teams and partly because 2) the people who wrote these articles probably didn’t pay attention to the 2012/2013 season OR the events earlier this season, namely the Grand Prix events.
To elaborate, if you’ve read my Skating 101 post on Olympic berths and how we decide how many spots and which skaters to send to the Olympics, you’ll know that each country’s figure skating federation gets the final say on which skaters to send to the Olympics and the World Championships. Each country has their own criteria and for the U.S., the decision is often solely based on the results of their National Championships. Other countries, like Japan, take the Grand Prix series, which happens earlier in the season, into account while others, like Russia or Italy may choose to send their highest ranking competitors at Nationals and have them duke it out in the European Championships for a spot. What is most striking about the way Japan, Russia or Italy (and many other countries) chooses their Olympic team is that other competitions have some influence over the final decision, lowering the stakes of the National competition.
Overall, the National competition is, in my opinion, the least important competition of the season. The National competition is not an ISU-sanctioned event, and therefore the scores and results there don’t count towards the points that skaters gather over the season to determine their world rankings. (This system is separate from the results of the World Championships and is basically a way to rank the competitors based on the points they garner through various international competitions throughout the season.) Furthermore, any scores, even world record-setting scores, at National competitions don’t count when determining world records, partly because the scores for top skaters are rather inflated at Nationals. In other words, scores at Nationals are kind of weird at the top. Finally, the biggest reason why the National competition is one of the least important of the year: chances are, the competition at Nationals is really watered down. Very few countries have multiple exciting and A-list competitors in one discipline. Right now, Japan is an exception to that with their singles disciplines but that may change next season when a huge list of veterans begin their retirement.
In any case, I wouldn’t be surprised if the U.S. upped the stakes for their national competition to make the event more exciting to watch. A high stakes competition is a good way to get skaters to skate as well as they can and generate enough interest and revenue from ticket sales. There’s also the historical factor of how the U.S. used to have a huge list of amazing ladies skaters (and how obsessive the USFSA is of finding The Next American Ladies Champion), which would warrant this type of competition but frankly, the U.S. seems to have a good arsenal of ice dancers nowadays while the competition in other disciplines seems a little watered down. Sure, the struggle for gold at Nationals might seem exciting but as of now, the only figure skating medal that the U.S. can really bet on in Sochi is the ice dance. Gold, in fact. Medals from the men or pairs event are unlikely but as for the ladies…
Well, in the international arena, the ladies competition at the Olympics will be quite interesting. I’m pretty sure Yuna Kim will be part of the podium and I wouldn’t be surprised if she got the gold medal. Mao Asada had a little trouble at Nationals (bronze) but her season so far has been a story of gradual improvement. As for the bronze, I would have said last year that Carolina Kostner would be a good contender but with her bronze at the European Championships (rather than the gold), I’d say that the Olympic bronze (and possibly silver) are fair game. If I had to say who the top contenders are at the moment, I’d name the two young Russian ladies, Julia Lipnitskaia and Adelina Sotnikova, possibly Gracie Gold and… Ashley Wagner.
If any of these journalists or viewers who are making this huge fuss about Wagner’s appointment to the Olympic team had paid any attention to the beginning of the 2013/2014 season, you’d see that out of all the U.S. ladies, Wagner was the most successful in the senior Grand Prix circuit.
Exhibit A: Wagner was the only American lady who qualified for the senior Grand Prix Final event. (See my roster post for the GPF)
Gracie Gold, the National Champion was 3rd alternate, Mirai Nagasu did not qualify at all while the silver medalist, Polina Edmunds only competed in junior Grand Prix events, meaning she has yet to compete with the veterans and the people who will actually go to Sochi.
Wagner qualified for the GPF because she was in the top 6 of best rankings in her Grand Prix assignments.
Ashley Wagner: 1st at TEB, 2nd in Skate America
Gracie Gold: 3rd in Skate Canada, 4th in the NHK Trophy
Mirai Nagasu: 3rd at the Cup of Russia, 8th in the NHK Trophy
Polina Edmunds: 1st in both the Junior Grand Prix events in Belarus and Mexico.
Exhibit B: In terms of her skating, Wagner has been skating relatively clean during the GP series. Someone at The Skating Lesson has offered a reason for Wagner’s lower scores for her clean/almost clean skates (read the post here). I haven’t been paying to much attention to Wagner’s programs this season but I hope she resolves the issue in time for Sochi.
Edit: According to this article, Wagner is changing her long program by skating to Samson and Delilah (her LP from last year) with hybrid choreography derived from her Romeo and Juliet and Samson and Delilah programs.
Exhibit C: Not quite proof but the big flaw in the high stakes national competition – just like at any high stakes standardized test, its greatest flaw in measuring achievement is that it can only measure the test taker’s ability on that particular day. It’s just like if you had a terrible day and you took the SATs and got a bad score because things just kept going wrong and you couldn’t focus on the test. Maybe Ashley just had a bad weekend during Nationals. Who knows. But that shouldn’t eclipse her success just weeks ago at the Grand Prix Final.
I’m not a huge fan of Ashley Wagner but by looking at what she’s done so far in the season, I think the U.S. Figure Skating Association would be foolish if they didn’t send her to Sochi. And let this be a lesson to them for setting such high stakes at their Nationals competition: it stirs up controversy over Olympic selection and the outrage is generally from people who don’t follow the sport closely. In the end, I hope that Wagner and all Olympic figure skaters deliver so that we have an exciting competition in Sochi.
What are your thoughts on the Wagner/Nagasu controversy? Who did you think should have been on the U.S. Olympic team? Let me know in the comments!
~The Rinkside Cafe