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Skating controversy underscores need for team selection criteria

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Just what figure skating needs smack before the Olympics: yet another controversy. But unlike the inevitable wrangling about judging politics, this altercation could have easily been avoided had the U.S. Figure Skating Association (USFSA) set clear and transparent criteria for naming skaters to the Olympic team. No such formal criteria exist now, and the decision-making process is shrouded in secrecy. It is time for a change.

Following the conclusion of the ladies final at the 2014 National Championships, the audience and TV viewers were left in suspense about who will represent the U.S. in Sochi. Even worse, so were the competitors themselves. Three very talented young women captured the coveted medals most people assumed would pave their way to the Sochi Olympic Games. Unfortunately for the USFSA, the most highly acclaimed female skater in the U.S. today, Ashley Wagner, was not among them. Following two dismal performances, Wagner sat in a distant fourth place, behind Gracie Gold, Polina Edmunds and Mirai Nagasu. Her ticket to Sochi seemed to have slipped from her fingers. Not so fast, the NBC commentators reminded us. Technically, the association has the right to name anyone they please to the team, including of course, Ashley Wagner.

That is indeed what happened the next morning. Not only did the USFSA name Wagner to the Olympic team, but also to the World Championships team, leaving former national champion and current bronze medalist Mirai Nagasu at home — and in tears.

The decision seemed so unusual and unprecedented, that some in the media went as far as accusing the association of racism for turning its back on an Asian American, especially considering that 15-year-old Polina Edmunds, who won the silver medal, was selected for the team even though she has never competed in an international senior event. Nagasu has Olympic experience and did her country proud with an outstanding performance at the 2010 Games, where she finished fourth at the age of 16.

“Wagner’s flowing blond hair, bellflower-blue eyes and sculpted features mark her as a sporting archetype,” wrote columnist Jeff Yank in an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal. “She’s the embodiment of the ‘golden girl’ the media has extolled when they’ve waxed poetic about idealized ice queens of the past.”

In fact there is no evidence that race played a part in the decision. Many Asian American women have been very much in favor with the USFSA, as they were with the skating public. And Wagner, at her best, is indeed a formidable skater, and even a potential medal contender in Sochi. But the facts that she has already lined up a plethora of sponsors and is being widely used in NBC’s promotions of the Games, are likely to have been at least to some extent in the back of the minds of the decision makers.

After all, Wagner's selection, is unprecedented in United States skating history. In each of the other four cases when a national medalist was bumped off an Olympic team, it happened in favor of a prominent skater who was unable to compete due to injury. No one in his right mind would have objected to the selection of Nancy Kerrigan to the 1994 Olympic team after her infamous attack in 1994. It is far more difficult to justify such a decision in favor of someone who simply lost her composure under pressure, especially when it happened for the second time in as many Olympic cycles.

In all fairness to the USFSA, it is true that Wagner had a much better season or two than any of the ladies on the podium — the reason cited by the USFSA for its decision. After a fifth-place finish at the World Championships last year, she was the only U.S. lady to qualify for the Grand Prix Final, where she finished third.

But if that was truly the consideration … how come Max Aaron is being sent to the World Championships instead of Jason Brown, in spite of his dismal international season (and total lack of international experience prior to it)? By comparison, Brown exploded onto the national and international stage, outperforming all U.S. men on the Grand Prix circuit and winning the long program at Nationals with a near-record score — ahead of the overall winner, Jeremy Abbott. Brown and Aaron finished second and third, respectively, but the men can only send two competitors to the Olympics and Worlds, so Aaron bumped Brown off the world team.

Another argument that can be brought in Wagner’s favor is that it was her strong performance at last year’s Worlds that secured the third spot on the ladies’ team, thereby giving Wagner a moral right to it. But judging by this criterion, Johnny Weir should have been sent to Worlds in 2009, when an illness kept him from competing. By winning the bronze medal at Worlds the previous year, he similarly won that third spot for the U.S. men’s team. Yet the USFSA never even considered offering it to him.

The USFSA does not need to explain such grossly inconsistent decisions. No rule requires it. No criteria for how to name the team exist to our knowledge. We don’t know who made these decisions, how or why. Nor can anyone overturn them.

And that’s exactly the problem. Secrecy and lack of accountability. They offend in judging decisions, and now also in the selection for the Olympic team.

This is not about Ashley Wagner and whether or not she should be on the team. That’s settled and history by now, and the U.S. will be beautifully represented at the Olympics. This is about basic fairness and how decisions are made. It is also about the skaters themselves, who after training a lifetime to compete in the Olympics, now have to bite their nails for hours or even days before being told if their medal is good enough for the trip to the Games or not. Seemingly willy-nilly decisions on the part of a major skating body can only continue to contribute to the general impression that skating is not really a sport worthy of the Olympic Games. Wouldn’t it be so much simpler to let the competition decide, as is the case with most other sports?

Or else, if other criteria must be used in very unusual circumstances, they need to be clear, logical, transparent, public, and most importantly, applied equally to all competitors.

Overruling competitive results should really happen only in cases of injury or illness, or else in other extraordinary circumstances that may prevent a top-tier skater from competing at Nationals. Prior results should not be a reason to send a skater who crumbled under pressure to the Olympic Games.

But whatever the criteria, the skating association should let us know what they are before the start of the competition, rather than tweaking them after the fact. The USFSA should give serious consideration to this issue and try to come up with a proposal on how to avoid similar controversies from happening in the future. Lacking such transparency, this sport, already mired in controversy, will come perilously close to losing its last shred of credibility.

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