Skating Through A Rink Of Frozen White Tears: An Olympics Recap

By Kendra James
Please excuse me while I take the same route as every other media outlet and enter into our Sochi ’14 discussion via ladies figure skating, ne Apparently The Only Winter Olympic Sport That Matters.

Nancy Kerrigan’s famous reaction to her ’94 Attack

In case you missed it -not that NBC was going to let that happen- this was the 20th anniversary of Nancy Kerrigan’s assault at the 1994 US Figure Skating Nationals in Detroit. Between NBC’s near obsessive focus, ESPN’s 30 For 30: The Price of Gold (streaming on Netflix for those interested), and Believermag’s article on Tonya Harding’s struggles within the sport’s confines (which we first highlighted over on the R’s Tumblr), the sport’s evolution over the past 20 years was apparent, as were the aspects of figure skating that haven’t changed: how race, perceptions of femininity, and occasionally blatant favoritism from officials can affect not only competitive outcomes, but who’s allowed to rise to fame and who’s left to fall by the wayside.

Kerrigan and Harding’s drama may be 20 years old, but given that we must discuss Mirai Nagasu’s Olympic snub it bears rehashing. After Harding’s ex-husband Jeff Gillooly’s (and friends’) assault to Kerrigan’s leg, she was unable to compete in Nationals. The assault was hardly Kerrigan’s fault, but because she didn’t compete she technically failed to “earn” a spot on the ’94 Olympic team. Tonya Harding placed 1st in Detroit and then 13 year old Michelle Kwan placed 2nd. Harding’s title would later be stripped by US Figure Skating (USFSA).

Michelle Kwan skating in 1994

While Kwan would hardly miss out on the Olympic experience during her senior career (see: Nagano ’98, Salt Lake ’02), the ’94 Olympics should have been her first trip. She attended but as an alternate for Kerrigan who, to her credit, completed a monster rehab program on her knee (her landing knee, making it more impressive) in time for the Olympics just eight weeks later. Harding maintained her innocence during Kerrigan’s rehab process, but as the Olympics drew closer it became public knowledge that she’d at least known about her ex-husband’s plan to knock Kerrigan out of the competition for her own benefit. The Olympic committee considered throwing her off the team (which would have granted Kwan a spot), but eventually backed down after Harding threatened to sue.

Nancy Kerrigan placed second in the Olympics that year, while 15 year old Oksana Baiul from Ukraine grabbed the gold. Tonya Harding barely managed to lace up her boots to get on the ice, and when she finally did it ended in an 8th place disaster. We can’t replay the events over and definitively say that Michelle Kwan would have placed higher than Harding, but it certainly stands to reason that even at 13 years old, a competitor not under active investigation by the FBI for assault on a fellow competitor might have been the better choice.

Ashley Wagner is most definitely not under investigation by the FBI, but the controversy that ensued when she was picked for the Olympic team over Mirai Nagasu did more to dredge up memories of ’94 than a thousand NBC promos could have hoped for. Though not officially Olympic trials, the US Nationals have generally acted as the selection process for Team USA in Olympic years. This year in Boston the ladies results stood: Gracie Gold (Gold), Polina Edmunds (Silver), Mirai Nagasu, (Bronze), Ashley Wagner (fourth). When Team USA was selected Nagasu had been replaced by Wagner.

U.S. Figure Skating has the right to consider not just the Nationals but the skater’s overall “body of work,” and it was decided that Wagner’s body of work and her experience in international competition outweighed Nagasu’s. Aside from ’94, the USFSA has never chosen to ignore the results of Nationals when it comes to naming the Olympic team unless an injury is involved– and they cite ’94 as one of those injuries. Yet Nagasu was the only competitor in the top four with any experience on Olympic ice. She missed the podium in Vancouver by 12 points (not a large amount when you consider that gold winner Yuna Kim trounced the competition by 23 points). Like Wagner, she was also a former National champion.

The Ladies podium at the 2014 Figure Skating Nationals in Boston

So why was Nagasu a lesser choice than Wagner? Or then-15 year old Polina Edmunds, who had no international experience whatsoever prior to setting blade to ice in Sochi? Why would any of this come up as an issue when they were perfectly fine in naming bronze medalist Jason Brown to the US Men’s team. Brown is a 19 year old skater with only two major pre-Olympic competitions to his name and no competition ready quad of any kind. If USFSA were that concerned about winning then Jason Brown , despite being a crowd favorite youtube phenom, would not have been competing in Sochi.

There’s no firm answer to the Mirai vs. Wagner question. Some have speculated that the USFSA thought that Edmunds’ Russian heritage would endear her to Russian audiences and help her mental performance. Some believe that they group was well aware that NBC had been pushing the Ashley Wagner storyline since October; having already lost Evan Lysacek and thus one great rivalry (Lysacek vs. Plushenko) and plucky blonde skier Lindsey Vonn, NBC couldn’t afford to lose anyone else they’d spent advertising dollars on. Others suspected they didn’t like that Nagasu was competing at Nationals without a coach and firm team behind her. She certainly managed to medal despite it all. However all speculation aside the facts are clear: this marks the second time USFSA has used their power to deny an Asian skater an earned spot on Team USA.

Perhaps this wouldn’t have stung the way it did had the ladies team gone and performed to the ability that USFSA assured us they would. No one was expecting a podium sweep (let’s be kind and call this a “rebuilding year”) but there were hopes that Ashley Wagner or Gracie Gold could manage a medal of some colour. Gold finished 4th, Wagner finished 7th, and Edmunds finished 9th. A top ten finish is a fine accomplishment for a 15 year old skater making their debut like Edmunds, but more was expected from Gold and certainly from Wagner who many feel didn’t earn her spot on the team to begin with. Like with Harding and Kwan we’re left wondering what might have happened had Mirai been allowed to go and represent her country rather than being shunted off to the side by a committee who clearly hasn’t learned from their past mistakes.

Gracie Gold and a friend on Instagram

As many of us contributed to the #MiraiEarnedIt tag on twitter, her removal from the team became even more disheartening when things like Gracie Gold’s brand of fun instagram racism from November ’13 resurfaced just before the lady’s short program began in Sochi. Ashley Wagner’s reaction to her scores during the team program and her placement in the final individual competition reflected both a sense of privilege and a use of racial language that we can all agree to find unbecoming of an Olympian:

I feel gypped. People don’t want to watch a sport where you see people fall down and somehow score above someone who goes clean. It is confusing and we need to make it clear for you. To be completely honest, this sport needs fans and needs people who want to watch it. People do not want to watch a sport where they see someone skate lights out and they can’t depend on that person to be the one who pulls through. People need to be held accountable.”

The irony of those words coming out of the mouth of someone who fell twice at Nationals and yet ended up at the Olympics over someone who skated clean is just beyond comprehension. But then we all know that white privilege is a hell of a drug– it’s no difference when it comes to skating. Some might even argue it came into play when Adelina Sotnikova was awarded gold over Yuna Kim.

As for the rest of the skating competition, the best compliment to offer is that while there may have been competitors with racist inclinations, there were no overtly racist programs as we’ve seen in Winter Olympics past. However, Meryl Davis and Charlie White (and later during the Gala, Bronze Medalist Carolina Kostner) followed their appropriative Bollywood program from 2010-2011, and a samba/Jennifer Lopez themed program from 2011-2012 season with a portrayal of Sherazarde this year. All are technically exquisite programs performed almost always without mistep by the dance pair, but Meryl’s habit of playing brown girls on the ice (complete with bindi in ’10-11) hasn’t gone unnoticed.

Finally, Asian American skaters Maia and Alex Shibutani (the “Shib Sibs”), also representing Team USA in dance, placed 9th in Sochi– again, very respectable for an Olympic debut. With Davis and White likely retiring after Worlds in March the Shib Sibs have a good foundation to build as they move towards South Korea in 2018.

Ladies’ skating may be the Olympics’ prestige sport, but it was hardly the only event worth paying attention to. I’d be remiss not to mention that Lolo Jones has gone home from yet another Olympic Games without a medal. Despite a high profile switch from track and field in the summer games to bobsled in the winter she only managed to place 11th in the USA Team-3 sled. I can only assume she’ll be back in Rio in ’16 playing badminton. In Speed Skating Chicago native Shani Davis failed to medal in any of his favoured events. J. R Celski also under performed in his favoured events, but managed a silver medal in the Short Track 5000m relay. There’s some thought that while newly designed BMW sleds definitely aided Team USA bobsledders, newly designed Lockheed Martin suits may have slowed our skaters down on the track.

Davis and Jones were a strong focus of NBC’s pre-opening ceremonies coverage, as were Gracie Gold and Ashley Wagner. All four failed to medal. Evan Lysncek and Lindsey Vonn pulled out of competition prior to qualifying, though they’d both already done at least 2 interviews with Matt Lauer building up to Sochi. None of NBC’s preplanned storylines seemed to go the way they wanted this year, and thus they took to creating their own– whether it meant they had to harass Bode Miller about his recently deceased brother until he fell down into the snow crying (no, really, that happened) or spend weeks using the Nightly News broadcasts to hammer home a terrorist attack narrative that never came to fruition (thankfully) and later focusing on what came to be known as #SochiProblems.

Strangely enough, no one at NBC ever thought to mention that while Sochi’s games went off mostly without a hitch (barring some poor hotel preparations and a camera shy Olympic ring) our own Olympic games were blown up in 1996 and it took us seven years to figure out who did it. The horse NBC had us all sitting on isn’t as high as we were led to believe. Russia’s human rights issues and homophobia shouldn’t be minimised, but it still bears mention that many of the criticism levelled against the Sochi games could have been levelled at us back in Salt Lake ’02 when, incidentally, we had a pedophile perform during Opening Ceremonies.

Of Olympics in recent memory I’d have to say this wasn’t a favorite. It doesn’t even rank in the top 3, but most of that doesn’t come down to Sochi’s preparation (or lack there of) or corruption stemming from the International Olympic Committee or Putin himself. With a 9 hour time difference between the US East Coast and Sochi I was even more aware of NBC’s complete failure when it comes to their broadcast schedule. Social media makes for a spoiler minefield when you’re attempting to stay strong and watch during the evening coverage, but also fills you with guilt when you give in and watch the live event airings illegally online and want to cheer on Team USA. Of course therein laid the other problem– this is the only Olympics where I have actively rooted against the ladies in my favorite sport: figure skating. I cheered when Gracie Gold fell during her long program and took pleasure in Wagner’s seventh place finish overall. Not only were the other skaters simply actively better than our ladies they also hadn’t publicly climbed over or insulted Asian women in the process of getting there.

Sochi had its moments of greatness, but it was also exhausting and personally I’m ready for baseball season -where I fully expect to see Lolo Jones starting in left for the Marlins- but until then let’s take to the comments. What was your Sochi experience?

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  • nevilleross

    Although I usually don’t give a fuck about the Olympics (this book and two others like it tell why I don’t), I must admit that as a Canadian, I was glad to see Canada win big at hockey and at curling. This article was a great look at how racist sports can still be, and why I’m glad I was never truly interested in any sport at all (must be my Asperger’s that does it.)

  • Cactus

    So annoyed about Gracie Gold’s “Asian face” picture. How rude. This is the first I’m hearing of it. She seemed a bit too sparkly and princessy during her long and short programs, but I thought “it’s okay not to love her, but she’s obviously talented and she does deserve to be there.” Then her gala piece made me like her more. And now this. Guess my first instinct was right!

  • Rick Laurent Feely

    If it had not been for Wagner’s previous performances, there would not even *be* a 3rd spot on the US team. Wagner was a lock, she really just needed to show up at nationals. It was between Edmunds and Nagasu. It probably should have been Nagasu, Wagner and Gold, but Nagasu didn’t always get the triple-triple, had performed inconsistently. Edmunds was seen as less of a “risk” because of that.

    • Cactus

      But is that really fair to the other competitors, to have one girl guaranteed a spot so even if she performs badly she’ll get to go? Couldn’t that actually be bad for the team? What if Nagasu and Edmunds’ positions were reversed, and the 15-year-old no one had seen before skated perfectly and got the bronze, and she lost out on the Olympics because Wagner “deserved” a spot? I’m not sure that’s the way sports should work. Body of work isn’t a terrible thing to consider, but as Caddy said above, there should be some standard. And is there another sport where body of work counts more than actual performance when it counts?

  • Caddy Compson

    I’m not so upset that Wagner was given on a spot on the team–I’m upset at the way that it happened, with the USFSA taking her body of work into account but not Mirai’s. Either they should have entirely determined the Olympic team via body of work–in which case it should have been Wagner, Nagasu, and Gold (as much as I can’t stand Gold and her racism) as Edmunds has no real body of work to speak of and presumably has at least one more future chance for an Olympic spot in 2018–or they should have gone with the top three from nationals. If they had done one or the other (either a Wagner-Nagasu-Gold team or a Nagasu-Gold-Edmunds team), there would have been no issue, and I think everyone would have agreed that the results were as fair as these sort of subjective things can be. But the USFSA cherrypicked, and taken with their racist (not to mention homophobic) past actions, there’s no other way to interpret their decision but as motivated by racism.

  • David Smith

    Didn’t michelle kwan wear a bindi when she did taj mahal routine?

  • Kraas

    Wow, I didn’t know that about Wagner. That’s pretty damn low of her.

  • Denise Alden

    Good article, Kendra. One of my complaints, among many, was the fact that NBC really chopped up the coverage of events. These weren’t live anymore, so why, in the middle of skating, am I taken to skiing? It drove me nuts. Didn’t know about the whole Ashley controversy, other than announcers saying “She belongs here . . .” (which I didn’t understand). And God, that Gracie Gold was hard enough to take without that obnoxious instagram photo. Now I can’t un-see it.

    • de_Pizan

      That was the thing that made me so furious, commentators kept saying how Wagner needed to prove she belonged, and some people felt she didn’t deserve to be there, etc. But NOT ONCE did they ever mention Nagasu’s name or otherwise explain the controversy to those who might not have been familiar with what happened at Nationals.
      With Costas having Weir and Lipinski on his program on the last night of figure skating, I’m really hoping that means that Hamilton and Bezic are on their way out (and Hammond, the man knows absolutely nothing about skating, I don’t understand why they keep putting him at the ice rinks).

    • Caddy Compson

      The network knows there are loads of people out there (myself included) who only really want to watch figure skating and have no desire to watch the other sports. So the network chops up the sports and moves back and forth from one to another so that you have to keep the TV on for fear of missing what you actually want to see. It’s all to trick us into watching things we don’t want to watch.