Schedule of Events
There is probably only one thing on the mind of American figure skating fans at this moment — the saga of Ashley Wagner, Mirai Nagasu, and the U.S. Figure Skating Association. After Nagasu finished ahead of Wagner by a full eight points at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, it appeared that the 2010 Olympian would be returning to the biggest stage of her sport with teammates Gracie Gold and Polina Edwards. Instead, basing its decision on results through the calendar year, the USFSA decided to grant the third qualifying spot to Wagner.There is past precedent for such a move. Technically the USFSA reserves the right to consider the results from past Grand Prix events, world championships and other international competitions, and has in the past selected skaters that did not place well at the national championships. But there is greater precedent that has presented the national championships in an Olympic year as the national qualification trials. After the ladies completed the free skate on Saturday night, everyone in attendance — including Wagner and Nagasu — thought the latter had won a second trip to the Olympics.
When the names were announced (alphabetically, drawing out the most possible suspense) on Sunday, the shock was palpable. Wagner seemed more relieved than excited about her second chance at Sochi. And instead of a chance to improve on her sixth-place finish in Vancouver four years ago, Nagasu will wonder what might have been as she watches Wagner and the other women compete from her home in California.
Part of the controversy in figure skating is not even due to its scoring, which was revamped in 2004 to be more transparent in the wake of judging scandal at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, but rather incidents like this one. Just as many have been skeptical of the BCS era in college football and have longed for a playoff, we have long become accustomed to this high-pressure test to see which Americans qualify for the Olympics in their chosen events. We don’t hand Michael Phelps his lane in the pool automatically for each Olympic race; he has to earn it, in one-off competition, the stakes rising against his compatriots.
Perhaps the better athlete will be in Sochi following this decision. Should Wagner podium or even win gold in Russia, she will vindicate the end result of the USFSA’s decision. But it will not vindicate the means that got Wagner on the ice, for we will also never know what Nagasu — who is less consistent throughout a season but more consistent on the biggest stages of her sport — could have done with four more years of experience.
But that’s plenty proselytizing about selection procedures. After all, Wagner went to bed on Saturday night knowing she still had a chance at selection… and Nagasu knew naggingly that she could still be pipped by procedure.Ultimately, neither was likely to knock off South Korea’s Kim Yu-Na. The defending Olympic champion, Kim sat out the 2011-2012 season but came back just in time to win the 2013 world championship by a record 20.42 points over European champion Carolina Kostner of Italy. Only 23 years old, Kim could conceivably compete until the 2018 Olympics in her home country — and could dominate the sport over an extended period as few athletes ever have before.
We have, also, seen phenomenal rivalries blossom over time on the ice in recent years; one need look no further than the top two teams in ice dancing, Canada’s Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir and the team of Meryl Davis and Charlie White from the United States. Since the 2010 Olympics, when the Canadians won on home soil ahead of their neighbors to the south, the two teams have been trading world championships leading up to this Olympiad. Though the pattern would only be fitting that Virtue and Moir would win this year, given that they have dominated the even years where Davis and White have owned the odd-numbered ones, it would only be fitting for the Yankees to take this Olympiad to spark the rivalry heading into worlds at the end of March in Japan.
The men’s field is one in transition; only one of the three podium finishers from Vancouver, Japanese skater Daisuke Takahashi, returns for another go at Olympic glory in 2014. For Russians, who would have loved nothing more than to see Evgeni Plushenko improbably win another gold medal on home ice, this will be especially painful. The likely champion is Canada’s Patrick Chan, who is a three-time defending world champion (after taking second in 2009 and 2010, no less) that would love nothing more than to avenge his complete miss of the podium in his home country with Olympic gold in Plushenko’s home nation.At least Russian fans have pairs skating, in which their compatriots Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov will be the overwhelming favorites to win gold. The defending champions, China’s Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo, have retired from the sport. Volosozhar and Trankov, the defending world and European champions, will have a partisan crowd behind them in the Iceberg Skating Palace in Sochi. But their story is particularly interesting, considering the fact that Volosozhar and Trankov were skating with different partners — and for different nations — back in 2010.
You see, Volosozhar used to team up with Stanislav Morozov under the Ukrainian flag from 2004 to 2010. Ethnically Russian, a child of the Soviet Union, she was denied the right to skate for Russia by Ukraine until Morozov retired after the Vancouver Games. Now grated expedited citizenship, Volosozhar has been teamed up with Trankov for the past four years. After an adjustment period their first season together, they finished second at the 2011 and 2012 world championships before winning the title last year in London.
While China’s Pang Qing and Tong Jian, fourth place finishers in Vancouver in 2010, and the German duo of Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy could both conceivably pull off an upset, this story is one that almost feels written by the hand of Putin. Having already broken their own world-record scores twice this season leading up to the Olympics, Volosozhar and Trankov feel destined for victory in this event while everyone else fights for silver and bronze.