All About Eve on Ice: Creating a New Olympic Rivalry Between Blonde Girls, Just in Time

U.S. Nationals podium, l to r: Edmunds, Gold, Nagasu, and Wagner

If you'd watched Mirai Nagasu's free skate this past Saturday night at the United States National Figure Skating Championships, you definitely would have believed you'd witnessed a triumphant finish to a figure-skating cliffhanger. Nagasu, who placed fourth at the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver, had an uneven recent history in competition, with a messy long program at last year's Nationals and an 8th-place finish at the NHK Trophy in Tokyo, one of the key international competitions that make up the Grand Prix. But she skated two gorgeous, clean programs at this year's Nationals—the only one of the top-four skaters, in fact, to skate without a single fall—and the smile she flashed toward the end of her long program signaled relief and pride: If the judges' scores made the decision, she'd be getting a second chance for Olympic glory.

Unfortunately, that's not how U.S. Figure Skating—or the Olympic marketing machine—works. Though until this year the top-three finishers at an Olympic-year Nationals have gotten an automatic ticket to the Games, this year the selection procedure made a historic allowance for other criteria—specifically, the "body of work" of 4th-place finisher Ashley Wagner. She, rather than bronze medalist Nagasu, will be headed to Sochi along with the 1st- and 2nd-place finishers, Gracie Gold and Polina Edmunds. I'm not the only one calling shenanigans.

Wagner is a two-time national champion who missed qualifying for the 2010 Olympic team by a hair, a story that background commentary emphasized heavily in this year's Nationals. Her nerves were apparent at the Nationals, and her long program seemed irrevocably marred by two falls. But Wagner was a lock for the Olympic team for one crucial reason: what NBC, the network broadcasting the Olympics, needs more than a champion skater is a good story. Preferably one that showcases not only athletic competition but a more basic competition between two young women.


1994 gave us the Kerrigan-vs.-Harding saga, a perhaps-untoppable (let's hope, anyway) storm of media narrative recently unpacked brilliantly in The Believer on the occasion of the event's 20th anniversary; four years later, there was a less violent rivalry on deck, that between the beloved Michelle Kwan and the unbearably perky 15-year-old newcomer Tara Lipinski. This year, the story can be summed up as All About Eve on ice: Bubbly, 18-year-old Gold, with her made-for-headlines name, is poised to unseat 22-year-old Wagner. Even before the Olympic team members were announced, the Nationals were the Ashley-vs.-Gracie show. "Gracie Gold's Triumph is Ashley Wagner's Tragedy," lamented Yahoo! Sports; "Ashley Wagner Falls Twice while Gracie Gold Shines in Free Program," gloated USA Today.

U.S. women's figure skating has long been a marquee event for Olympics broadcasts, but no U.S. competitors medaled in 2010; as John Powers noted in a recent Boston Globe analysis, American women haven't topped the world skating scene since 2006. The result, he and other analysts worried, was that NBC, without Americans on which to hang breathless, pre-Games coverage, could simply shunt coverage of the women's competition to the sidelines. "With Lindsay Vonn out of the skiing competition with an injury, an absent Wagner would have left the United States—and the network—without another visible star and medal hopeful," noted the New York Times' Jere Longman in an article titled "Wagner on U.S. Team as Officials Choose Reputation Over Result." But a manufactured rivalry between the perennially hopeful Wagner and newly-crowned U.S. champion Gracie Gold? That's some must-see TV.

It's impossible to ignore the whiff of racism in the federation's decision to market its Olympic rivalry as one between two women who are skating dopplegangers, sharing the silky blond hair, white skin, snub noses, and lean, willowy physiques of classic ice queens. Despite the fact that a number of its most visible champions have been women of color—Kristi Yamaguchi, Debi Thomas, Kwan—figure skating has always been a sport defined by whiteness. The first-ever black pair in the history of the sport (France's Vanessa James and Yannick Bonheur) debuted at 2010 Olympics; the bronze medalists at those same Games were Germany's  Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy, the first interracial pairs skaters. France's Surya Bonaly, a three-time world silver medalist and five-time European champion, was legendarily at odds with both judges and audiences due to her "aggressive" style and strongly muscled physique—Serena Williams before Serena Williams. And it's hard to forget that back in 1998, when Lipinski rocketed out of relative obscurity to win gold over Kwan, MSNBC chose the baffling, incorrect "American Beats Out Kwan" as its headline.

Gracie Gold, left, and Ashley Wagner
Not to be like, "All white people look alike," but...

In other words, the racial tenor of the decision to snub Nagasu for the 2014 team may not be overt, but contextualized in skating history, it's also not unproblematic. There was even something to the narrative that accompanied Nagasu's performance Saturday night that was decidedly othering. Commentators Scott Hamilton, Terry Gannon, and Sandra Bezic, among others, made repeated reference to the "meltdowns"  that had plagued Nagasu's performances over the past several years—crying on the ice before her long program at the 2009 Nationals, frustrating her former coach with her stress even over being in the lead—and wondered aloud at her decision to compete without a coach. Nagasu, it was implied, was simply too much of a loose cannon to count on. Wagner, meanwhile, has her own history of close calls and struggles—she once called herself the "almost girl," and lamented after her scores were posted Saturday that "I'm embarrassed that I get so much media attention for the skater that I am, and then that skater doesn’t even show up on the day that it counts.”

But some underdogs, it seems, are better than others. In Wagner's case, there's also more invested in them—the skater has contracts with Nike, Cover Girl, Proctor & Gamble, and Pandora jewelry, among others, making her the most endorsed non-Olympic medalist in skating history. (Nagasu has no sponsorships; Gold is a fellow Cover Girl endorsee, deepening their perceived rivalry.) And despite the petition on Change.org addressed to the president of the U.S. Figure Skating Association, Patricia St. Peter, it's unlikely to change what the federation maintains is a justified decision. “The deliberations are confidential, but I can vouch for the fact it was a fair process," St. Peter stated after the team was announced. But don't count on getting clarification over whether that means fair to the athletes—or to the sponsors.

Few winter sports are as emotionally charged a spectacle as women's figure skating, and it's one of the few where judges don't even pretend to not judge a competitor's personality almost as much as their technical proficiency. In the end, the Ashley-vs.-Gracie gambit will work—and even if it doesn't there's a built-in backup story in Nationals silver medalist Edmunds, the 15-year-old whose first international competition as a senior competitor is the Olympics (and whose own story is made broadcast-ready by the fact that her mother and coach is Russian by birth). In skating in general, and the Olympics in particular, it's never been just about the skating. But it's too bad that it took Nagasu losing her rightful place at the Sochi games to finally make that all too apparent.


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Comments

13 comments have been made. Post a comment.

This isn't about race and it

This isn't about race and it isn't about feminism. Wagner has been by far the best US skater of the last two seasons, and very clearly the best medal chance that US women have. Politics have factored in, but not race. Sponsors and the lack of coach for Nagasu are a factor.

unfortunately, it is about

unfortunately, it is about race, and it is very convenient to deny it. discounting people of color is a very passive aggressive way to shame...and to direct the burden on the person of color...such as "what's the big deal?" there is no reasonable way to justify why wagner is on the team...it's about bending the rules to get the "it" girl in...who, herself, knows don't deserve it.

If you follow figure skating

If you follow figure skating on a regular basis you would know that Mirai Nagasu has been sub par and only managed to tweek out two ok programs at Nationals. Ashley has won the last two Nationals and is responsible for the US having 3 spots at the Olympics ( how the skaters place in the world championships determines how many spots the US gets for the Olympics) .
It is easy to just look at this situation at face value and bring in the R word, but it really does not apply in this case. The Olympic team is decided on the 'body of work' for the year leading up to the Olympics and Ashley is clearly the skater to pick.

Did you read the article?

how convenient for the olympic committee to decide to look at the body of work when it's a white woman's spot on the line.
and really now? if ashley is the best figure skater of the last 2 seasons, then what's with her inconsistent track record and inability to even medal at the US championships?
obviously you didn't bother to read the article. b/c if you did, you would know that the author brings up countless - and might i mention solid - examples of figure skating catering to whiteness and white women.

and dont you think asian

and dont you think asian women, non-white competitors have a harder time getting sponsorship? olympic athletes with big ticket deals represent brand america, and who better to sell america than a blond haired blue eyed white girl? this is about racism on more level than one.

I agree, it is about race.

It's always difficult for minorities to get fair treatment/sponsorship/support. That's the truth, and unless you're a minority in this country, you'll never know for sure, or how you'd react in a situation where you've been subjected to racism. No matter how subtle or unconscious or unintentional, it hurts, and it's damaging, and it has yet to cease.

In this case, they could have sent Mirai to the world championships, but they didn't. Nationals was a competition where Mirai came in Third, clearly. She was a couple of points away from a junior skater, who did wonderfully, but is untested internationally, was making her senior (competitive) debut.

Shouldn't Mirai be rewarded all the benefits that come with placing third? I understand that Ashley is America's "it" girl this year. I think sponsors were early to tap her then.

If sponsorship is the issue here, then how horrible is it that in the end, it comes down to a popularity contest? By bother training then?

Of course you get all the

Of course you get all the facts wrong about how the decision has worked in past years. First, the only reason we have three spots to give out (normally we only have two) is because of Wagner's outstanding performances internationally (specifically, placing top 5 at the past two world championships).

the decision made in past

the decision made in past years was to allow skaters with injuries to compete such as todd eldridge, nancy kerrigan and michelle kwan...the decision to skip over #3 for #4 is unprecedented. so please you check the facts before you post. this is an unfair decision, and let's just call it what it is. white is right for the olympics.

Thanks for your patronizing comment!

Most Olympic years have, in fact, sent three female skaters to the Games, with 2010 a notable exception. I'm not sure how I got "all the facts" wrong.

____________
Andi Zeisler, cofounder and editorial/creative director

Comments Policy: Like to hear it? Here it go!

Yep. In the past 30

Yep. In the past 30 years:
1984: Sumners, Chin, Zayak
1988-Thomas, Trenary, Kadavy
1992-Yamaguchi, Kerrigan, Harding
1994-Harding, Kerrigan
1998-Kwan, Lipinski, Bobek
2002-Kwan, Cohen, S. Hughes
2006-Cohen, E. Hughes, Meissner
2010-Flatt, Nagasu

So only 1994 and 2010 stand out as unusual. And the whole change to include a skater's past body of work is an odd one: those things shouldn't really matter. Sasha Cohen didn't qualify in 2010 because her performance at those nationals wasn't good enough, no matter what she was doing in the early 00's (when despite her unpredictability, she was allowed to go to Salt Lake City and Torino). And Michelle Kwan dropped out of consideration for 2006 because of her injuries. I have nothing against Wagner, but the same rules should apply to her.

The fact is these rules go both ways - biased all the time

The fact is the consideration of the skater's "body of work" vs results is always political with the USFSA team delegation, and a lot of it has to do with the media presentation. It can work for skaters that fit USFSA's ideas of what they want, and against skaters who do not, regardless of athletic performance. It remains a judged sport that is incredibly conservative in gender presentation and roles (women were required to wear a full skirt in competition until 2006 rule changes, and you can be marked down for your boots not being the "right color" - AKA not fitting within the gender binary of black boots for men/white or cream for women).

In 2009, Johnny Weir (a much stronger skater than Wagner, who was coming off a grand prix bronze that season) came down incredibly sick with the flu while competing in Japan (losing 8 pounds in a single day.) He managed to still win a medal at that competition but was incredibly sick and unable to take some medications that would help because they were on the "banned" list. He skated with the flu at the US nationals a few weeks later because he didn't trust to ask the selection committee for a bye to Worlds, because historically US figure skating has not preferred his more "feminine" presentation and his flamboyant  personality. At the time he was not officially out as gay, and still to this day no currently competing figure skater, male or female, has ever come out. Johnny Weir only came out once he retired, even though it was an open secret.

Weir ended up skating poorly while sick at that 2009 nationals, and placed fifth. It was the first time since 2003 that he had been off the podium at Nationals, having traded the top two spots back and forth with Evan Lysacek. And- like Wagner - it was his world medal the previous season that got the US team 3 spots at World's that year.

He petitioned the selection committee for a bye based on his "body of work" and his request was denied.
At the time, Scott Hamilton speculated that if Weir had withdrawn from nationals due to the flu and asked to be on the world team, he should have gotten it, but the fact was he didn't trust the committee to treat him fairly due to the USFSA's preference to push more "masculine" and "straight" skaters.

The fact is, the selection committee process won't stop being biased until skating stops being an incredibly biased sport judged by 80-year-old white men. 

Thank you for writing more

Thank you for writing more clear and concise points on this story (than some OTHER news sources). While not a figure skater myself, I loved watching famous skaters growing up. Hell, I grew up around the corner from Nancy Kerrigan and everyone in town had to hear about the Tanya Harding debacle for a LONG time.

Of course, as a child I never thought about the commentary, but I happened to catch part of the program the other night and thought to myself, "Why the hell are some of these comments in relevant?" It seemed as though they were digging for dirt, and gossiping with the viewers at home.

It lends an air of distrust and subjectivity to the decisions that are made on behalf of these young girls' futures.

True the Olympics has a race problem but.......

True the Olympics has a race problem but does HAIR color really need to be mentioned? They unfortunately single out women of color, but the women who are chosen are white women of any hair/eye color, whatever. As long as they are white, they will be chosen. Because of course racism.