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WHY I HATE FIGURE SKATING, PART I

Mirai Nagasu: Not American Enough to be America’s Next Figure Skating Darling?


I never understood why so many Americans hated the sport of figure skating until this year’s National Championships. That’s when 3rd place finisher Mirai Nagasu got bumped from the Olympic Team so 4th place finisher Ashley Wagner (and USFSA pet) could get a spot on the team and go to Souchi. That’s when I started hating it, too. Suddenly, those angry denouncements of “Not fair! Not a real sport! It’s fixed!” started to make sense. Especially when the Procter & Gamble “brandsaver” insert arrived in Sunday’s newspaper(“Savings OVER $116 -- let the GAMES BEGIN!”).

There, amid all the coupons for deodorant, toothpaste, paper towels, laundry detergent, body wash, and disposable diapers were the Olympians. The US Olympians. Not only were they promoting their upcoming appearance at the Winter Games, they were advertising P&G products. Lindsey Vonn, everyone’s favorite downhill racer, got a full page spread with the headline “Gold Medal Beauty.” (Conspicuously near that heading were Crest Whitestrips, Olay Fresh Effects BB Cream!, Pantene Hair Repair Serum, and Covergirl Bombshell Mascara.)

Underneath her gorgeous photo was this caption: “Lindsey Vonn is fiercely competitive and intensely beautiful. Whether on the mountain or on the red carpet, she has the skills and products that help her shine.”

Too bad she’s not going to Sochi, though. Lindsey Vonn officially announced she was out of Olympic contention on January 7, 2014.

Same thing with Evan Lysacek. Next to another bundle of P&G products, he was identified as the “Men’s Figure Skating 2010 Olympic Gold Medal Winner.”

Too bad he stopped competing in amateur skating competitions after getting that gold medal, though. Evan Lysacek officially announced he would  be out of Olympic contention back on December 10, 2013.

So this big photo shoot took place weeks, probably months, before most of these featured American Olympians could even compete in the athletic events that would determine whether or not they could even go to Sochi.

And P&G, proud sponsor of these Olympic Games, featured them anyway and identified them as contenders for the 2014 games -- even though P&G and the athletes themselves supposedly had no idea they’d even be able to get a spot on the team.

And what’s wrong with that? Capitalism is capitalism. If you’re photogenic enough in your USA sports hoodie, the suits at P&G couldn’t care less.

But there’s something pretty disingenuous about featuring these athletes with the headline “Cheer on the Red, White & Blue as Team USA goes for Gold” when you really don’t know if your photogenic athletes are going to be selected for the Olympic Team this year.

Then again, advertising, by its very nature, is misleading. Advertising thrives by getting consumers to buy products and services they don’t want or need by convincing them that they do indeed want and need said products and services.

But athletic competitions aren’t supposed to be like advertising campaigns. A sporting event like figure skating isn’t supposed to be decided before the competition takes place. But there’s Ashley Wagner in the Team USA group photo, along with another figure skater Gracie Gold...

Maybe figure skating isn’t fixed, but for my money, it sure is suspiciously pre-ordained in an unwholesome, unethical manner. That’s what I hate about it.

That’s what everybody else should hate about it, too.

After mulling over results from past competitions, however,  I’m amazed people still consider themselves fans of figure skating. The competitions are so rife with favoritism and subjectivity that there’s no way to rationally discuss why one performance was judged better or worse than the other.

Too often skating performances are judged on the popularity or favorable reputation or past titles of the skaters, not on the current performance at hand.  I vividly recall seeing dismal, problematic performances -- even outright falls on the ice -- from Janet Lynn, Nancy Kerrigan, and Ashley Wagner. And these skaters each went on to respectively win the National Title. Go figure. And, to make matters more confusing, these skaters who goofed but still won were lauded by sports announcers and commentators with all kinds of supportive, complimentary feedback like this:

A courageous, gutsy performance.
Such elegance!
You can’t get more refined than that.
Beautiful, beautiful skating.
She might have had a few slips, but what a trouper! What a skater!

That lavish praise kept coming for skaters they liked...simply because they liked them. Meanwhile, the other skaters got reamed out for doubling a triple jump or hanging onto a shaky landing. Why? Because they didn’t like these skaters, they really didn’t like them. Sasha Cohen, Silver medalist from the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, Italy, immediately comes to mind.

If poor Sasha skated anything less than a perfect program, her performance was immediately criticized and questioned:

There she goes again! She just can’t focus! It’s a matter of concentrating and keeping your head in the game!

Why can’t she do this? She just can’t ever do a clean skate -- it’s beyond her! Why? What’s wrong?

What’s going on with her?

All this carping ensued when Sasha Cohen was actually winning -- not losing -- medals! Go figure.

Apparently, it’s not enough to skate well and give good performances. As a beloved American figure skater, you must also tacitly embody all the qualities that are uniquely indigenous to America. You know, like working hard. And working hard to make your dream of an Olympic gold medal come true. And believing in yourself. And loving your family and friends and community who believed in you, too. If you want to make it in this sport, you have to be beloved...and Mirai Nagasu just wasn’t. And isn’t.

Poor Mirai.

In case you’ve missed the latest psycho-drama in Women’s Figure Skating, I’ll fill you in. There’s the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat...then there’s what they’re doing to poor Mirai Nagasu.

If you’d been paying any attention to the ongoing derogatory zeitgeist sent by the National Figure Skating Association and media about her, though, you wouldn’t expect her to be such an amazing athlete. But she is. She truly is.

Mirai Aileen Nagasu got on the podium at Nationals four times and won the gold in 2008, when the competition was held in St. Paul, Minnesota. That historic win made her the second-youngest woman -- next to Tara Lipinski -- to cinch a national U.S. Senior Ladies Figure Skating Title. She’s also the first skater since Joan Tozzer in 1937 and 1938 to win the junior and senior national titles in consecutive years. Pretty impressive.

Unfortunately, her skating performances haven’t been very consistent. On the average, she usually rates somewhere in the top ten of the competition. But a lot of skaters who compete for such a long duration also go through long spells of inconsistency. It happens to the best of skaters.

In fact, journalist Christine Brennan explored how pervasively this sport affects the bodies and minds of growing women in her 1997 expose Inside Edge: A Revealing Journey into the Secret World of Figure Skating.

Her book actually discussed how the pursuit of perfection could come out sideways as anorexia, bulimia, delayed puberty, and other psychological/emotional disorders. Figure skating does a real number on these aspiring athletes. But they keep skating.

Like so many other skaters, Mirai has had to contend with growing spurts and weight gains that come with adolescence, then with young adulthood. Not easy for skaters because those things affect your center of gravity which, in turn, affects your ability to spin and jump.

Let’s not forget the minor sprains and accompanying injuries of this sport, either. They might seem too insignificant for young athletes to mention, but they can affect their training and performance just the same. I’m sure Mirai has had her share of pain and requisite healing, too.

But if figure skating inflicts such ups and downs on all its practitioners, then why are the USFSA and all its affiliates so critical of this amazing athlete? Why do they keep picking on Mirai Nagasu?

I’ve come up with 2 reasons: one involves the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, the other involves an almost subconscious ethnic misperception. Both theories, however, cast Mirai in the role of scapegoat.

WINTER GAMES OF DISCONTENT

1. Four years ago, Mirai Nagasu almost won a bronze medal at the Winter Games. Almost. Although her short program was a little shaky, she rallied to skate well in the long program. But that night, Canadian National Champion Joannie Rochette also skated and got the bronze medal.

Rochette didn’t win because she skated that much better than Mirai Nagasu. Nagasu’s long program wasn’t perfect, but I could argue that it was still better than Rochette’s. I could argue that the judges deliberately marked down everything Nagasu did (or didn’t do) so she could lose the bronze medal by the narrowest of margins. That, in fact, seems to be what happened here.

But more importantly, after a history of fall-downs and screw-ups during her major skating competitions, Joannie Rochette suddenly and unexpectedly had so much momentum going into the free skate there was no way she could NOT win something. And there was no way Mirai Nagasu could win...anything.

First of all, consider the venue. Joannie Rochette was a Canadian skating in Canada -- host country of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games --  in an arena packed with cheering Canadians.

And then, while Rochette had been practicing for her short program, she got the news that her mother had unexpectedly died of a heart attack. Instead of withdrawing from competition, Rochette chose to skate in her mother’s honor. Then during the long program, she skated fast -- almost with reckless abandon -- to the Bacchanal from “Samson and Delilah.” Talk about a crowd pleaser!  Talk about a sentimental favorite! It was Rochette’s night. And it was the stuff Olympic dreams and legends are made of.

No matter how well she would have skated, Mirai Nagasu wasn’t going to make it to the podium that night, anyway. It wasn’t just about figure skating: Joannie Rochette had a better story/struggle than Mirai Nagasu did. So she got the bronze medal.

And yet, to this day, the sports commentators at these events won’t let Nagasu -- or anyone else watching -- forget that she almost won an Olympic medal -- but didn’t. As though skating well that night would have gotten her a prize. It wouldn’t have. But the USFSA and its cohorts keep reminding her that she lost this medal --  and it was all her fault. Not true. Give it a rest. PLEASE!

TOO ATYPICAL TO BE AMERICA’S TYPICAL SKATING SWEETHEART?

2. After the USFSA announced its decision to send 4th place finisher Ashley Wagner to Sochi instead of 3rd place finisher Mirai Nagasu, a press conference was held. USFSA President Pat St. Peter, with all the charisma of an indignantly defiant librarian, admonished anyone who dared question her organization’s choice. “This competition,” she announced, “is not the only event that US Figure Skating considers in selecting its team...Looking at Ashley Wagner’s record and performance, she’s got the top credentials of any of our athletes.”

Really? Which performance are you talking about, Pat?

Once again, you have to wonder about the perceptual difference between these two skaters as seen from the powers-that-be. Every little slip Mirai makes is a major earth-shattering, game-changing catastrophe, while Ashley’s errors are ignored and excused. Why?

True, some of Wagner’s past performances in International Competition did help to secure 3 --  not 1 or 2 -- places for US figure skaters on the Olympic team.

And yet, it’s also true that she has never got to the podium in any World Championship, ever. Her highest ranking was 5th in the World. (At least Mirai was once 4th in the World.)

In fact, last year Wagner fell during her free skate at the US Nationals. This year, she fell again in a routine she herself declared “embarrassing.” And yet, she -- not Mirai Nagasu -- is going to the Olympics?

Maybe Mirai, a young Asian-American woman, just isn’t American enough for the USFSA and their sponsors and media co-horts.

Although she was born in Montebello, California, and grew up in Arcadia, her parents didn’t. They were born in Japan. They’re immigrants who own and operate a sushi restaurant, but they’re NOT American citizens. Right now, 20 year-old Mirai has dual citizenship of the USA and Japan. But because Japan does not allow dual citizenship for adults 22 and older, Mirai must choose which country she wants to be “a citizen of.”

She’s bilingual, speaking a combination of English and Japanese at home. But she was also fluent and accomplished enough in Japanese to work as a commentator in Japan (for Fuji TV) during the 2009 World Championships.

Even back in 2007, after winning her two Junior Grand Prix events, she participated in a skating TV showdown between Team USA and Team Japan. She was on Team USA, of course, but is now well-regarded and well-known in Japan. Not real American Girl material.

Oh, now it all makes sense. Mirai is considered more Asian than American.

Does that sound a little too harsh? Then consider another discrepancy, this time one between Mirai Nagasu and former National Champion Michelle Kwan. In the fall of 2001, right before the 2002 Winter Olympics Games, Michelle Kwan fired her coach Frank Carroll. More suprisingly, she replaced him with her dad Danny. Now Danny might have had experience in organizing events and operating his family restaurant, but he had no experience as a figure skater or coach.

Although every commentator and reporter alive wondered about her decision, no one critized what Michelle did. Not so with Mirai.

Vern and Scott and the gang at NBC-TV sports had a lot to say about Mirai’s not having a coach in an Olympic year. In fact, their commentary suggested that going coachless not only reflected poorly on this skater’s commitment to skating, it also showed her lack of simple focus and organization...and ditziness.

Also, contrast this unfair portrayal of Nagasu with the fluffy PR piece about Ashley Wagner that appeared in the January 13th issue of USA Today.

Remember Christine Brennan, dedicated investigative journalist who wrote Inside Edge? Now, 17 years after her book’s publication, Brennan has a cushy job with USA Today that she doesn’t want to lose. So she’s placed her job security over truth and accuracy and fair play. That means going along with the USFSA’s puff n’ fluff pieces, or else getting completely locked out of the skating world she wants to cover for her newspaper. Better a sell-out than an unemployed journalist.

That’s probably why Brennan and the powers-that-be decided to transform Wagner’s questionable spot on the Olympic team into heroic journey. Brennan should have known better, but she went right ahead and entitled her column “Wagner faces the music,” with subheading “Skater takes fitting tone after landing Sochi spot.” Then she included this quote from Ashley Wagner, as though it were a noble, admirable sentiment:

“I’m fully, fully prepared to get people saying, ‘Why are you on the team? How did that happen? I don’t get it. You don’t deserve to be here’...I’m very prepared for that. But I’m also prepared to say, OK, the hard part’s is over. I made it onto the team. I can’t dwell on this performance, because  that’s not going to do anything for me. I’m just going to propel myself into becoming that strong, hard-headed Olympian.”

Being hard-headed had nothing to do with your skating, girl. You screwed up, but you’re still going to the Olympics. That has nothing to do with hard work or dedication. You just have friends and influential supporters in high places. So put a lid on your narcissistic, self-deluding self-promotion! PLEASE!

You may have achieved your childhood dream of going to the Olympics, but it’s a hollow victory. Think about it. If you have to crap on a fellow athlete just to make your dreams come true then maybe your dreams aren’t worth it. Maybe you should get some different dreams. Or, better yet, maybe for once in your life, you should start thinking about doing the right thing.

Brennan actually closed her article by gushing, “No wonder this woman is an Olympian. She was made for the role.”

Not really. If Ashley Wagner had been a true Olympian, she would have stepped down and given Mirai Nagasu her rightful place on Team USA.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Rebecca Lynn January 31, 2014 at 03:46 AM
And yet, it’s also true that she has never got to the podium in any World Championship, ever. Her highest ranking was 5th in the World. (At least Mirai was once 4th in the World.)" The above is not true. Wagner was fourth in the world in 2012, and then 5th at last year's worlds. So that's two top five finishes to Nagasu's 1. Add in that Wagner's medaled at the last two GPFs, which is probably in someways the second most important competition of the year after Worlds. Mirai never made the GPF final, You have to do well at her your gp events to make it. I think her federation was thrilled with the 4th place finish at the Olympics. However it was suppose to be a start, not her best result. What I mean is they hoped she would go on to start medaling and winning World titles. The international judges were ready to reward Mirai too and placed her first after the short at the 2010 world championship. However, she then proceeded to skate a poor free program. After that the results have been incredibly inconsistent Yes she's dealing with growth spurts injuries, but all of these skaters do. Mirai still has time, she should look to Arakawa for inspiration.
Rebecca Lynn January 31, 2014 at 03:48 AM
I really don't think race has anything to do with it. Michelle Kwan was adored by her federation and she was a child of Asian Americans too. Mirai has a great personality and is very marketable. I think rather its results.
Ema Nekafo February 06, 2014 at 08:17 PM
I completely agree with you. Like seriously what was the point of the trial if they weren't even choosing the TOP 3? SERIOUSLY? I agree that if Wagner were a true Olympian she would had stepped down.

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