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Outrage follows decision to leave Nagasu off U.S. team

by Jack Gallagher

Staff Writer

“To sin by silence when we should protest makes cowards out of men.”

— Ella Wheeler Wilcox

The opening quote from Oliver Stone’s 1991 movie “JFK” by the American author and poet comes to mind as the uproar over Mirai Nagasu being left off the United States team for the Sochi Games continues to grow.

For those not up to speed on the matter, Nagasu placed third last Saturday at the U.S. national championships in Boston, which normally would have clinched a spot on the team for the Olympics. However, when the team was announced the following day, Nagasu was left off and Ashley Wagner, who finished fourth, was included.

The U.S. Figure Skating Association invoked the “body of work” rule for the past few years in selecting Wagner over Nagasu, essentially citing the former’s superior recent results.

Both social media and the skating bulletin boards lit up and continue to react to the decision. An online petition was even started to reverse the call.

Some may try to compare it to Daisuke Takahashi making the Japan team for the Winter Games over Takahiko Kozuka, but that won’t stand up to scrutiny. Though Kozuka took third place ahead of Takahashi (who was fifth) at the Japan nationals last month, there were mitigating circumstances.

Takahashi, who won the NHK Trophy in November, was coming off a leg injury that caused him to miss the Grand Prix Final in Fukuoka just two weeks before. His pedigree in big competitions (bronze medal at the 2010 Vancouver Games, followed by winning the 2010 world title), also worked in his favor.

Nagasu’s exclusion is a bit more complicated. Her results since Vancouver (where she finished fourth) have been inconsistent, and she turned up at the nationals without a coach after previously splitting from the legendary Frank Carroll.

What has not gone over well is the fact that in the history of the USFSA, this is the first time it has ever bumped a skater for reasons other than injury. The most famous instance of that came in 1994, after the attack on Nancy Kerrigan, when the USFSA replaced 13-year-old Michelle Kwan with Kerrigan after she passed a fitness test.

While Japanese fans seem to have come to grips with the subjective nature of selections for major competitions by the Japan Skating Federation (e.g. Miki Ando being picked for the 2006 Turin Games over Yukari Nakano), the same can’t be said of American supporters.

The reality is that when something is billed as a “national championship” and “Olympic qualifier,” it is only natural that when a person finishes third and does not get a berth on the team, there is going to be an outcry from the public.

There is a saying in track and field in the U.S. that comes to mind: “The only place it’s worse to be fourth than at the Olympics is the Olympic Trials, because at least you made the team.”

So this is why people think something is fishy. The sad part is that now Nagasu’s exclusion is provoking accusations of racism in the Asian-American community.

I don’t think race played a factor in the decision, but one can’t discount the fact that the three women selected to represent the States — Gracie Gold, Polina Edmunds and Wagner — are all white.

It is also no secret that NBC — which will broadcast the Sochi Games in the U.S. — has heavily promoted Wagner as a potential star in Russia.

What I find most disappointing is the reluctance of any of the past prominent American female Olympic medalists to speak out — one way or the other — on the controversy.

Ice Time contacted Kristi Yamaguchi, who won the gold at the 1992 Albertville Games, for comment but received no response.

It would seem to me that as the only Japanese-American to win the gold in the women’s singles, Yamaguchi should say something. She and Nagasu also both hail from California.

Because of the delicate nature of the subject, it appears that nobody wants to say anything negative and face the wrath of the federation. But that comes across as pretty lame in this case.

The entire issue of Nagasu, who is 20 now, being passed over has been compounded by the fact that Wagner skated terribly at the nationals. She fell twice in the free skate and was uninspiring, not exactly infusing confidence into those watching in person and on television.

I saw her skate at the Grand Prix Final in Fukuoka last month — where she took the bronze medal — but was not particularly blown away by the 22-year-old’s performance.

Nagasu, who won the U.S. title in 2008 at 14, has been her own worst enemy at times. She upset Carroll with her lack of committment, and seemed to let success go to her head on occasion.

Her father once said to a reporter: “She thinks she’s Lindsay Lohan.”

Nagasu, who also did not respond to a request for comment, initially indicated she would protest the decision, but then released a statement that sounded canned.

“I’m disappointed in the decision,” Nagasu was quoted as saying. “Though I may not agree with it, I have to respect the decision the federation made.”

Any guess as to who released the statement?

The USFSA.

So it comes as no surprise that it reflects the party line.

What is interesting to note is that the very same evening the statement came out, Nagasu retweeted the following post by a friend:

“Love that social media exists but we are cautioned not to write how we are truly feeling. Where is the honesty?”

So there you have it.

Nagasu was obviously muzzled by the USFSA, and perhaps others, in an attempt to quell the controversy.

No doubt she was pressured with comments like: “You have to think about your future” and “you should not criticize the federation.”

But it seems to me that she should have spoken her mind for the record and let the chips fall where they may. Anybody who saw her tearful performance in the exhibition gala could tell that she was absolutely devastated.

The fans at the gala are to be saluted. They gave Nagasu a standing ovation when she took the ice in tears.

I actually think the case for Edmunds being left off the team and Nagasu being included is easier made than Wagner being omitted. Edmunds is a 15-year-old from San Jose, California, who was skating in her first major senior competition.

She impressed a great many with her talent and second-place showing, but one has to wonder if that equals or surpasses Nagasu’s record on the big stage in her career. I don’t think it does.

Edmunds, whose mother is Russian, seems more like a candidate for glory in the 2018 Pyeongchang Games than in Sochi.

So why was she selected?

Because she finished second?

Certainly not because of the “body of work” clause.

Scott Hamilton, the gold medalist in singles at the 1984 Sarajevo Games, gave his analysis on NBC’s “Today Show” earlier this week.

“The national championships aren’t the Olympic Trials,” he said. “The selection process for the Olympic Games goes on for a couple of years before the Olympic Games, so the nationals are a part of that process, but it’s not the process. So when you look at Ashley Wagner and what she’s done over the last two years, winning nationals twice, placing high enough in the world championships to allow three participants to go, she’s already earned her spot on the Olympic team.”

He added, “I like to see somebody earn their spot on the team, but Ashley kind of did that. Mirai, I adore. . . . She’s devastated, and my heart bleeds for her. I’m so sad for her, but the reason we have three women going to the Olympics is because of Ashley Wagner.”

The matter appears to be done and dusted now.

What I find saddest is that nobody prominent in the skating community stood up for Nagasu. They all looked the other way when she needed an advocate.

Mirai deserved better than that.

  • phu

    While I agree with almost everything here, the assertion that “she should have spoken her mind for the record and let the chips fall where they may” seems extremely short-sighted.

    For whatever reason, she’s been left off of this team. Which means she really only has one more shot at skating in the Olympics before she’s considered too old to compete at that venue. Foul play or not, this is absolutely not a situation in which you should be speaking out against the body that decides who goes and who stays.

    If her greatest desire is to sob on camera, then yes, this is a great opportunity to make a statement that will probably ensure she doesn’t make it in 2018, in addition to being quickly forgotten, just like her.

    If, however, she wants a shot at any Olympic medal… she’ll have to play the game, just like everyone else.

    Life isn’t fair. Figure skaters work incredibly hard for a very long time, but guess what? The vast majority never get so far as the podium in a national competition, let alone attaining consideration for the Olympic games. When your hard work (and all the other things that contribute) get you that far, risking those results and that potential upside because you disagree with a bit of unfairness is a really awful way to acknowledge your own effort -and- the time and work of the people who’ve helped you get there.

  • Sam

    Good article. Of course, it’s not just Yamaguchi who should say something (other past champions should as well), but the fact that she was contacted but did not respond strikes me as cowardly. I can understand Nagasu not commenting–she’s still under USFS’s thumb. But Yamaguchi isn’t–what does she have to be afraid of?

    I remember back in ’94, skaters like Fratianne and Hamill commented publicly that Harding should stay on the Olympic team–that took courage, whether you agreed with their stance or not. The fact that everybody is remaining silent now about Nagasu getting bumped from the team strikes me as pretty wimpy. Are they remaining silent because they honestly don’t have an opinion, or is it all about self-interest and self-preservation? If the latter, then that is sad.

    I’m not Japanese, nor am I a big Nagasu fan. But I just find the decision to send Wagner over Nagasu to be very political and mercenary.

  • D.R. and D.L. Domarad

    Honestly, unless there is corruption involved, I really wish that the
    USFSA and other federations / associations would just simply honor the results. For once, in my opinion, the judges at Nationals managed to get 1-3 right and they were on the right path until they decided to manipulate the standings for various and nefarious reasons.

    The irony is, that the Olympics themselves are full of “underdog”
    athletes and great comeback stories and the podiums have been chock full of them and whether the more accomplished athlete is on them or not, you do not see the IOC “bumping” the medalists off the Olympic podium(s), if an underdog beats the big, more accomplished star! I mean, come on…, this is so wrong!

    Imagine, if we applied this selection criteria in the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL or any other Olympic eligible sport?!

    Ashley Wagner was not injured at the time of this competition, (all
    athletes have muscle strains, bumps, bruises, blisters, etc, we’re not talking about that) which would then, obviously, be a strong argument, but to be overwhelmed by the moment, etc?! You live with the consequences, that is sport and that is life! We use resumes’ in the business world, not sport, let’s keep it that way and again, unless there is / has been corruption involved, let the podium results in competition stand.

    What would really be impressive, is if Ashley Wagner were to step
    aside to the alternate position and let the results stand. I guarantee, this action in and of itself would be more impressive and garner more respect from a lot of people, than any medal would, be it gold, silver or bronze. Ashley Wagner would become a household name in the right, positive way, that any athlete would want. This action would show integrity, humility and unquestionable character if she were to do this. It would take great strength, resolve, faith and selflessness, no doubt, but there is no way Ashley Wagner could ever lose in this situation! Now that is sportsmanship at it’s finest and the right and compassionate thing to do!

    Not every athlete makes it to the Olympic games, even after multiple tries and that is ok, you can still be a great athlete!! Ashley would survive and be a better person for it!

    Can an athlete honestly, in all good conscience, be comfortable
    representing the USA at the Olympic Games, knowing that they had been “selected” on very fluid, vague and completely unsportsmanlike rules and guidelines and “justified” by the USFSA, based on what the athlete in question “might” be able to do in the future? USFSA, do you have a crystal ball that tells you so?

    No athlete “owns” or is “entitled” a spot, just because they helped get it back, they still need to earn it. As I recall, Ashley Wagner herself, said she was initially responsible, along with others, for losing it. Finishing 4th at the event is not exactly “earning” it and yes, placement(s) at Nationals should still hold a very prominent place in deciding Olympic teams.

    When you start cherry picking teams and podiums like this, the “sport” ceases to be a sport. Resist the temptation to “reward” someone for their “body of work” or “resume.” Take each competition singularly.

    Here is an idea: How about if someone from that “selection committee,” with a conscience, steps forward and gives us the real story as to why this biased, unfair and unacceptable “decision” was really made. Think about it, as you have
    plenty of support to come forward!!

  • nabiki

    I agree… it was an Olympic trial for Polina but not for Mirai. It was also an Olympic trial for men’s and pair’s where they declined to deviate from Nationals placements for skaters with better records. And then they didn’t even put Mirai on the World team while they changed up the World teams for men’s and pairs – that’s just a deliberate snub. Given they’ve had this criteria for a decade or so but never deviated from Nationals replacements, the Olympic year is just a hell of a time to try something new. Ashley was always going to be a real long shot to medal anyway – what is it accomplishing?

    But still, I seriously doubt anyone like Kristi would say anything publicly about the decision. It could come off as unsupportive to Ashley, even if unintentionally, and nobody wants to do that. It’s unfortunate but hopefully at least some of them are giving Mirai support, just not publicly. And hopefully this is brought up at the Governing Council so that USFS can’t do this kind of thing again.

  • vincent

    Isn’t it obvious they needed another blonde since Lindsay Vonn won’t be there and she was the face of the American coverage. Excellent story Jack. Nice to see you get off the Mao vs Kim Yu Na weekly updates for a change.

  • Chiisai (Paul) Sakanashima

    Nagasu passed over for Sochi despite third-place finish???…THIS IS AN OUTRAGE! I have heard there might be reasons for this,(and I hope to Buddha that racism is not one of them) but so what! Fair is fair. If she came in third place, she came in third place and that’s that!