UPDATED: The USFSA’s nonsensical defense in the Nagasu/Wagner debacle 

Leaving Nagasu off the team doesn’t make sense even by their own criteria


UPDATE, 1/18/14:
The Wall Street Journal Online has chosen to give the U.S. Figure Skating Association the opportunity to respond to my original commentary with a full-page commentary of their own, by Barbara Reichert, USFSA’s communications director, while citing that I should have sought out a response from USFSA and included it in my original essay. I won’t comment on the standards and practices context of this requirement.

However, I think their rebuttal—which doesn’t address any of the questions I raised in my WSJ piece or my followup below—demands some response in turn. Most of it is a dry recital of existing facts. The only assertions that are relevant are as follows:

“U.S. Figure Skating firmly believes in equality. Our bylaws clearly state that all athletes are to be provided an equal opportunity to participate in eligible athletic competition “without discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, age, gender or national origin.”
U.S. Figure Skating takes very seriously any implied reference that there was discrimination in the selection of the 2014 Olympic figure skating team. We challenge any such implication, particularly given the fact that more than 25 percent of our Olympic team members are Asian-American.
We travel to Sochi as Americans united in the goal of representing our country, our sport and ourselves to the best of our abilities.”

Let me be clear: I never accused USFSA of “discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, age, gender or national origin.” I stated that they made a decision based on marketing considerations, tethered to an age-old “All-American” athletic archetype. This archetype itself has a racial component, but as Amanda Hess of Slate has brilliantly noted, it is not solely anchored in race by any means.

What the archetype does is make certain athletes the predetermined “face” of their sport — offered blanket support by media, marketers and ultimately by the powers-that-be within that sport. That sometimes means bending rules or flouting convention in order to ensure that their economic and public relations value is protected.

It’s hard not to argue that this happened here. In fact, you can argue it happened twice: Ashley Wagner was selected for the Olympic team because she is U.S. Figure Skating’s current golden girl; Polina Edmunds, meanwhile, has been chosen because she’s the best hope to inherit that crown for the next generation. As some have noted, “reputation” is a critical trait for an international skater to have—the sport’s judging is so subjective that having a name and a set of expectations behind you can be a huge asset in actual competition. Giving a 15-year-old junior skater who’s suddenly popped up on the senior competition radar an Olympic showcase is sensible, by that standard. Even if she doesn’t win, she’ll be better positioned for the several Olympics she might subsequently compete in in the future. This is further underscored by USFSA’s decision to also not include Mirai Nagasu on the team competing at the Worlds—a decision that is entirely inconsistent with the choices they made in other skating categories.

So let’s be real: There is nothing “equitable” about the USFSA’s decisionmaking here. I do not think the USFSA is itself racist, which is why I’m flabbergasted that they’ve spent such significant energy defending themselves against imagined accusations of racism. But I do believe that the only colors they care about are gold—and green. If that means stepping on tradition or shattering the illusion of meritocracy in sports, they clearly have no qualms. Deadspin’s very smart piece on the “real reason Ashley Wagner made the Olympic team” echoes my stance on what USFSA could have done to inoculate themselves from this kind of critique: They should have emulated U.S. Gymnastics and simply stated that they will pick anyone they want to pick, for their own entirely subjective reasons. Stop pretending that there are objective criteria or an attempt to establish “equality”: USFSA has chosen the team that it thinks will maximize the USFSA’s chances of taking home gold and green. Which isno different from any amateur sporting association in the country. Endstop, done.

———

On Monday, I wrote a commentary for Tao Jones, my regular column in the Wall Street Journal Online, questioning the USFSA’s decision to leave 20-year-old Mirai Nagasu, the bronze medalist in the U.S. Nationals, off the Olympic skating team in favor of 22-year-old Ashley Wagner. I noted in the story that the decision contravened decades of convention — that, in fact, a medalist in the Nationals had never in history been left off the Olympic squad, except in four — just four—cases when top skaters had not been able to participate due to injury. I suggested that, consciously or unconsciously, the USFSA had made their pick not based on merit but on other, entirely subjective factors. Many readers and commentators chose to interpret what I wrote as charging the USFSA with racism.

I have no clue whether USFSA’s decision itself was based on race, and I’d like to believe it wasn’t. What it was clearly based on, however, was marketability.

But sadly, in the U.S., marketability is indeed based on race.

My WSJ piece is focused on the idea of the “golden girl” — a term first applied to one of Olympic skating’s early superstars, Sonja Henie, and which has survived since then through the years as an appellation for a particular type of skater: Blonde, ivory-skinned, willowy, slender.

The term “golden girl” is akin to the term “great white hope”: It is a racialized archetype that infuriates people when you actually call it out as a racialized archetype.

If you don’t agree that this archetype played a role in USFSA’s decision, then consider this: By the very same criteria that the organization used to pick Wagner over Nagasu, they should’ve picked Nagasu over Polina Edmunds — the 15-year-old blonde, Russian-speaking pixie who came in second at Nationals, her first-ever senior-level competition.

Edmunds’ record as a qualifying skater was exactly zero before the competition. Nagasu’s 12-month record, by definition, was better than hers. Yet Edmunds was picked over the more seasoned competitor, who was also the only top skater at Nationals not to fall during her routines. (Indeed, many observers questioned why Edmunds was given the silver over Nagasu.)

Some of you may point out that Edmunds’s second place finish is a tier higher than Nagasu’s bronze — an entirely illogical argument, given that the USFSA has declared the Nationals irrelevant as a stand-alone arbiter of Olympic viability.

Well, even if that were the case, there’s precedent for the Nationals silver medalist not going to the Olympics in favor of a more seasoned and proven skater.

It happened in 1994.

The young, up-and-coming skater who was dumped from the Olympic team was named Michelle Kwan.

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