Every Winter Olympics, some crank columnist delivers a rant about figure skating, saying it's not a sport because of the judging or the sequins or the flummoxing the writer endures, upon trying to discern the difference between a Salchow and a Lutz. The argument never amounts to more than a tantrum. Skating remains firmly centered in the Olympic program, the fulcrum of the Winter Games. It thrived after the knee-whacking sensationalism of 1994 and endured the 2002 vote-fixing allegations that left a trail to a Russian crime boss.
On Sunday, the U.S. Figure Skating Association gave its adversaries a new platform and invited mockery, if not accusations of corruption. It vaulted the fourth-place finisher in women's singles at the national championships into the third spot on the Olympic team headed to Sochi. Left out was Mirai Nagasu, the bronze medalist at nationals on Saturday and a 2010 Olympian. A committee using gelatinous standards and opaque explanations elevated Ashley Wagner at Nagasu's expense.
With very rare exceptions, the national championships in an Olympic year have determined the roster for the Games. Past "discretionary selections'' have favored established, dominant skaters who had been too injured to compete in nationals. Nancy Kerrigan was named to the 1994 team after a Tonya Harding supporter took a collapsible baton to her knee at a practice site for the U.S. championships. Given that the assault occurred on property rented by the figure skating association, the selection committee felt understandably obliged to send Kerrigan to Lillehammer. Michelle Kwan, then 13, was bumped to make way for Kerrigan, but Kwan in turn received her own injury waiver 12 years later. She used it to get to Turin without skating at nationals, but she then pulled out of the Games because she hadn't properly healed.
Even those decisions cast suspicion on the sport, turning Olympic berths into something akin to lifetime achievement awards, but Wagner's selection is a step beyond those. Unlike Kerrigan and Kwan, Wagner had no excuses. She wasn't hurt or sick. She just failed. She fell twice in her long program. Nagasu beat her in both the short and the long and then was voted out by a bunch of people who defined "discretionary'' as arbitrary. They acted on a hunch, supported by whatever evidence they wanted to use, that Wagner would do a better job at the Olympics.
The selection committee could not cite specific reasons for Nagasu's demotion, aside from the fact that it does not always have to hew to the results of this single event. The association's formal guidelines offer this vague formula:
To field the most competitive team, the U.S. Figure Skating's ICMS and International Committee will take into consideration the results and/or performance data from the 2014 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, 2013 Senior Grand Prix Final, 2013 ISU World Figure Skating Championships, 2013 Grand Prix Series events, 2013 Four Continents Figure Skating Championships, 2013 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, 2013 World Junior Figure Skating Championships, and 2013 ISU Junior Grand Prix Final to determine athletes who will have the most performance impact and the best chance for success at the 2014 Olympics Winter Games.
It has been the experience of U.S. Figure Skating that the athletes who have had success at the international and Olympic level are those who have demonstrated consistent performances, as opposed to the athletes who have had only a single great performance.''
The flaws in the guidelines are plain. The list of events fails to weight the value of each one or even suggest an objective measure of what constitutes "the most performance impact and the best chance for success.''
The final point does not apply to Nagasu. She has had more than "a single great performance.'' She won the national title in 2008, made the 2010 Olympic team by taking second at that year's nationals and then took the fourth place in Vancouver. She has struggled in the years since, but she still took third in a Grand Prix international event this season. Wagner had won the last two national titles and three Grand Prix events in the last two seasons. But in three trips to World Championships, she has never finished higher than fourth, and she has a history of falls in big events.
So how did she earn her tenure? Supporters of the decision argue that by finishing fifth at worlds last year, Wagner helped secure a third Olympic berth for the United States. But shouldn't it have been enough that even a third-place finish at nationals would send her to Sochi?
Media coverage of figure skating needs to start challenging the status quo, and so do the athletes themselves. The selection criteria are justified by whim and nonsense: They think this gives them the best chance to win medals, and other countries do it, too. There is nothing to prevent skating from choosing its Olympians without adding a layer of bias to a sport already short on objectivity. U.S. track and swimming run zero-excuses trials, body of work be damned. Everyone knows what it takes to make a team, and becoming the pre-Olympics pet of NBC or major sponsors adds up to no advantage.
If Wagner goes to Russia and delivers a knockout, U.S. skating officials will feel vindicated. But we'll never know what Nagasu could have done with the same opportunity. Two of the last Olympic three champions in women's singles, Sarah Hughes in 2002 and Shizuka Arakawa in 2006, finished third at their national championships leading into the Games. Nagasu is a dynamic skater, probably better at her peak than Wagner is at hers. She also appears to know how to seize a moment, to be at her best in a big competition.
In the end, Wagner explained the crux of the problem perfectly: "I didn't show up when the world was watching, and skating needs someone to show up when the world is watching." A committee of selectors had its eyes closed, blinded by its own self-importance and preconceptions, creating new material for the cranks. Skating is a sport, a very real and difficult one. The farce lies in its decision-makers.