If you’d watched Mirai Nagasu’s free skate this past Saturday night at the United States National Figure Skating Championships, you definitely would have believed you’d witnessed a triumphant finish to a figure-skating cliffhanger. Nagasu, who placed fourth at the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver, had an uneven recent history in competition, with a messy long program at last year’s Nationals and an 8th-place finish at the NHK Trophy in Tokyo, one of the key international competitions that make up the Grand Prix. But she skated two gorgeous, clean programs at this year’s Nationals—the only one of the top-four skaters, in fact, to skate without a single fall—and the smile she flashed toward the end of her long program signaled relief and pride: If the judges’ scores made the decision, she’d be getting a second chance for Olympic glory.
Unfortunately, that’s not how U.S. Figure Skating—or the Olympic marketing machine—works. Though until this year the top-three finishers at an Olympic-year Nationals have gotten an automatic ticket to the Games, this year the selection procedure made a historic allowance for other criteria—specifically, the “body of work” of 4th-place finisher Ashley Wagner. She, rather than bronze medalist Nagasu, will be headed to Sochi along with the 1st- and 2nd-place finishers, Gracie Gold and Polina Edmunds. I’m not the only one calling shenanigans.
Wagner is a two-time national champion who missed qualifying for the 2010 Olympic team by a hair, a story that background commentary emphasized heavily in this year’s Nationals. Her nerves were apparent at the Nationals, and her long program seemed irrevocably marred by two falls. But Wagner was a lock for the Olympic team for one crucial reason: what NBC, the network broadcasting the Olympics, needs more than a champion skater is a good story. Preferably one that showcases not only athletic competition but a more basic competition between two young women.
1994 gave us the Kerrigan-vs.-Harding saga, a perhaps-untoppable (let’s hope, anyway) storm of media narrative recently unpacked brilliantly in The Believer on the occasion of the event’s 20th anniversary; four years later, there was a less violent rivalry on deck, that between the beloved Michelle Kwan and the unbearably perky 15-year-old newcomer Tara Lipinski. This year, the story can be summed up as All About Eve on ice: Bubbly, 18-year-old Gold, with her made-for-headlines name, is poised to unseat 22-year-old Wagner. Even before the Olympic team members were announced, the Nationals were the Ashley-vs.-Gracie show. “Gracie Gold’s Triumph is Ashley Wagner’s Tragedy,” lamented Yahoo! Sports; “Ashley Wagner Falls Twice while Gracie Gold Shines in Free Program,” gloated USA Today.
U.S. women’s figure skating has long been a marquee event for Olympics broadcasts, but no U.S. competitors medaled in 2010; as John Powers noted in a recent Boston Globe analysis, American women haven’t topped the world skating scene since 2006. The result, he and other analysts worried, was that NBC, without Americans on which to hang breathless, pre-Games coverage, could simply shunt coverage of the women’s competition to the sidelines. “With Lindsay Vonn out of the skiing competition with an injury, an absent Wagner would have left the United States—and the network—without another visible star and medal hopeful,” noted the New York Times’ Jere Longman in an article titled “Wagner on U.S. Team as Officials Choose Reputation Over Result.” But a manufactured rivalry between the perennially hopeful Wagner and newly-crowned U.S. champion Gracie Gold? That’s some must-see TV.
It’s impossible to ignore the whiff of racism in the federation’s decision to market its Olympic rivalry as one between two women who are skating dopplegangers, sharing the silky blond hair, white skin, snub noses, and lean, willowy physiques of classic ice queens. Despite the fact that a number of its most visible champions have been women of color—Kristi Yamaguchi, Debi Thomas, Kwan—figure skating has always been a sport defined by whiteness. The first-ever black pair in the history of the sport (France’s Vanessa James and Yannick Bonheur) debuted at 2010 Olympics; the bronze medalists at those same Games were Germany’s Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy, the first interracial pairs skaters. France’s Surya Bonaly, a three-time world silver medalist and five-time European champion, was legendarily at odds with both judges and audiences due to her “aggressive” style and strongly muscled physique—Serena Williams before Serena Williams. And it’s hard to forget that back in 1998, when Lipinski rocketed out of relative obscurity to win gold over Kwan, MSNBC chose the baffling, incorrect “American Beats Out Kwan” as its headline.
Not to be like, “All white people look alike,” but…
In other words, the racial tenor of the decision to snub Nagasu for the 2014 team may not be overt, but contextualized in skating history, it’s also not unproblematic. There was even something to the narrative that accompanied Nagasu’s performance Saturday night that was decidedly othering. Commentators Scott Hamilton, Terry Gannon, and Sandra Bezic, among others, made repeated reference to the “meltdowns” that had plagued Nagasu’s performances over the past several years—crying on the ice before her long program at the 2009 Nationals, frustrating her former coach with her stress even over being in the lead—and wondered aloud at her decision to compete without a coach. Nagasu, it was implied, was simply too much of a loose cannon to count on. Wagner, meanwhile, has her own history of close calls and struggles—she once called herself the “almost girl,” and lamented after her scores were posted Saturday that “I’m embarrassed that I get so much media attention for the skater that I am, and then that skater doesn’t even show up on the day that it counts.”
But some underdogs, it seems, are better than others. In Wagner’s case, there’s also more invested in them—the skater has contracts with Nike, Cover Girl, Proctor & Gamble, and Pandora jewelry, among others, making her the most endorsed non-Olympic medalist in skating history. (Nagasu has no sponsorships; Gold is a fellow Cover Girl endorsee, deepening their perceived rivalry.) And despite the petition on Change.org addressed to the president of the U.S. Figure Skating Association, Patricia St. Peter, it’s unlikely to change what the federation maintains is a justified decision. “The deliberations are confidential, but I can vouch for the fact it was a fair process,” St. Peter stated after the team was announced. But don’t count on getting clarification over whether that means fair to the athletes—or to the sponsors.
Few winter sports are as emotionally charged a spectacle as women’s figure skating, and it’s one of the few where judges don’t even pretend to not judge a competitor’s personality almost as much as their technical proficiency. In the end, the Ashley-vs.-Gracie gambit will work—and even if it doesn’t there’s a built-in backup story in Nationals silver medalist Edmunds, the 15-year-old whose first international competition as a senior competitor is the Olympics (and whose own story is made broadcast-ready by the fact that her mother and coach is Russian by birth). In skating in general, and the Olympics in particular, it’s never been just about the skating. But it’s too bad that it took Nagasu losing her rightful place at the Sochi games to finally make that all too apparent.