Does US Figure Skating Need to Change Its Olympic Selection Process?

Lindsay Gibbs@linzsports Featured ColumnistJanuary 13, 2014

USA Today

The U.S. Figure Skating Association has some explaining to do.

At the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Boston last weekend, an event that started with promise and hope ended in controversy when the USFSA bumped third-place finisher Mirai Nagasu from a spot on the Olympic team in favor of fourth-place finisher Ashley Wagner.

The decision was technically justifiable according to their rulebook, but it raises enough questions about the integrity of the selection process that the USFSA will have a tough time coming up with defensible answers for all of them.

Ashley Wagner
Ashley WagnerRuss Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Ashley Wagner, 22, has been the face of American women's figure skating over the past couple of years. She has been heavily promoted by NBC in the lead-up to the Sochi Games and has contracts with CoverGirl and Nike, among others. She came into the national championships as the two-time defending champion and one of the favorites for the title.

But, despite the hype, Wagner quite literally collapsed under the pressure, bobbling her way through her short program and falling twice in her free skate to finish the competition fourth.

Edmunds, Gold, Nagasu and Wagner.
Edmunds, Gold, Nagasu and Wagner.Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Finishing ahead of her was, from first to third place, Gracie Gold, the 18-year-old rising star, Polina Edmunds, the 15-year-old surprise of the competition who took the silver in her first ISU senior event and Nagasu, the 20-year-old skater who won the U.S. Nationals when she was only 14 and finished in fourth place at the Vancouver Olympics.

Gold was a lock for the team, but since the USFSA has an Olympic selection process that takes into account a skater's "body of work" as opposed to just the U.S. Championships results, the final two spots on the team were up in the air.

After a night of deliberations, they announced their controversial decision—Gold, Edmunds and Wagner were on the team. Nagasu was the odd man out.

BOSTON, MA - JANUARY 11: Mirai Nagasu stands at the podium during the medal ceremony following the free skate program during the 2014 Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championships at TD Garden on January 11, 2014 in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Jared
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

The USFSA has rarely used its "body of work" clause for Olympic selections before. When the USFSA has, it has always been in the case of an injury. In 1992, Todd Eldredge was placed on the team in place of Mark Mitchell, even though he had a bad back and couldn't compete in nationals. 

Then, in 1994, after Nancy Kerrigan was infamously attacked at the U.S. Championships, she was placed on the Olympic team over a young and inexperienced Michelle Kwan, after Kerrigan proved her knee was healthy enough to skate. 

In 2006, Kwan was placed on the team over Emily Hughes despite her inability to skate at nationals, but she ended up having to withdraw from the Turin Games, allowing Hughes to compete anyway.

But this year was different, as it was the first time where a front-runner simply failed to perform at his or her best at nationals and was bumped onto the team ahead of a skater who performed better at the event.

Jan 11, 2014; Boston, MA, USA;  Ashley Wagner falls during the Ladies Free Skate at the TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports
Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Nobody is denying that Wagner has been the best U.S. skater over the last few non-Olympic years. In addition to her back-to-back national titles, she's finished in fourth and fifth place at the last two World Championships, skated well on the international Grand Prix circuit, and her performance at the World Championships last year was one of the reasons that the U.S. earned that third Olympic spot in the first place.

But it is alarming that, in a sport that prizes landing the biggest jumps under the most glaring spotlights above all else, Wagner had two of her worst skates under such high-stakes conditions.

If the USFSA weighs "body of work" so heavily, it seems wrong that Edmunds would have been placed on the team over Nagasu. After all, this was Edmunds' very first ISU senior-level competition, and, despite the promise she showed, could not be more of a wild card heading into Sochi.

Nagasu, meanwhile, has Olympic experience, has medaled on the Grand Prix circuit in the last year and has extensive experience on the world stage.

If they felt justified in bumping Nagasu down in favor of Wagner, why couldn't they do the same thing to the unproven Edmunds? It makes it seem like the criteria they are setting is being arbitrarily applied to favor the innate biases of the selection committee—which was probably the case. 

This decision was a career-altering moment of heartbreak for Nagasu, who sobbed tears of joy after her free skate on Saturday, knowing that when her scores flashed up that she was back on the national podium.

According to Nick McCarvel of NBC Sports, she rightfully thought that after a long four years, her Olympic dream was back in sight:

Nagasu said on Sunday that she was going to appeal the decision, but it seems as if she has decided against taking such action. The appeal probably wouldn't have done any good, anyway, considering the amount of bias involved.

It's understandable that the USFSA would want some control over the selection process given that the Olympics are by far the biggest stage for figure skating. However, it needs to focus on the process being more transparent and less discretionary. The committee must be held accountable to all of the skaters—not just the most well-sponsored ones—and to the fans of the sport.

If they want to be able to take into account "body of work," then perhaps a weighted-points formula would be the more straightforward way to go. Because, as it stands, it makes no sense that headed into the biggest competition of her life, what Wagner did last year would count more than what she did last weekend.

After all, a spot on the Olympic team should not be a career achievement award. That's not how sports is supposed to work.

The USFSA's actions have made an athletic competition look like a popularity contest, and that isn't a good look for a sport that is already struggling for respect and publicity in a crowded American market. 

Clearly, the selection process is broken. It's time for the USFSA to figure out a way to fix it.