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Mirai Nagasu Skating Controversy: Did Race Play a Part?

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Mirai Nagasu Skating Controversy: Did Race Play a Part?

Asian American denied a spot on U.S. Olympic team despite finishing 3rd at nationals.

Do officials at U.S. Figure Skating have a penchant for blondes over brunettes?

After a controversial decision to put Ashley Wagner (along with Gracie Gold and Polina Edmunds) on the U.S. Olympic figure skating team instead of Mirai Nagasu, some skating fans think that more than hair color played a part. The decision was made a day after Wagner performed miserably and finished a distant fourth to Nagasu’s third at last week’s U.S. National Championships.

The selection was unprecedented. Only four previous times in history did the association pick a skater out of order for the Olympic team – and each time it was because of an injury that kept the chosen skaters from performing at the national championships. Wagner was not suffering from a malady of any kind (except maybe stage fright).

Given that the three female skaters chosen for the Olympic team all had hair of gold (with one even named as such), it didn’t take long for accusations of racism against Asian Americans to surface. First on Twitter, then in The Wall Street Journal.

“Wagner’s flowing blond hair, bellflower-blue eyes and sculpted features mark her as a sporting archetype,” thundered Jeff Yang in the Speakeasy blog. “She’s the embodiment of the ‘golden girl’ the media has extolled when they’ve waxed poetic about idealized ice queens of the past, from Norway’s Sonja Henie to East Germany’s Katarina Witt, a marketer’s dream who’s already signed up tent-pole sponsors like Nike, Pandora Jewelry and CoverGirl, which assessed her Teutonic beauty as being worthy of serving as one of their global ‘faces.’”

The truth is that women’s figure skating has been dominated by Asians and Asian Americans since Witt’s reign ended in 1988. In each of the six Winter Olympics since the German ice queen repeated as the gold medal winner in Calgary, at least one skater of Asian descent has finished on the podium – and two on three occasions. The defending gold and silver medalists – also the two favorites to win in Sochi – happen to be South Korea’s Yuna Kim and Japan’s Mao Asada.

Asian-American skaters  have also have made an indelible mark on U.S. skating. Kristi Yamaguchi won gold in 1992, followed by Michelle Kwan’s reign as the most decorated U.S. female skater in history, and then came Nagasu, who as a 16-year-old finished a surprising fourth at the Vancouver Games in 2010.

Starting with Yamaguchi and until this year, at least one female Asian-American figure skater has been selected to the U.S. team for each Olympics except 1994, when Kwan was bumped after Nancy Kerrigan was attacked by thugs with ties to fellow skater Tonya Harding.

That drama was in large part created by the association’s favoritism toward prim-and-proper Kerrigan, at least as perceived by the camp of the less polished Harding. This year’s perception problem for U.S. Figure Skating – alleged racism – unfortunately isn’t completely without cause.

In 1998, after Tara Lipinski edged Kwan for the Olympic gold in Nagano, MSNBC blasted an Internet alert that screeched “American Beats Out Kwan.” The network announcers on NBC also appeared to favor Lipinski in their commentary, never mind that the Southern California-born Kwan was every bit as “American” as the Philadelphia-bred Lipinski.

Nagasu, herself a native Southern Californian, has chosen to take the high road. She decided not to challenge U.S. Figure Skating’s decision and has accepted her spot as an alternate.

Scott Hamilton, who won a figure skating gold medal at the 1984 Olympics in Sarajevo, said that Nagasu’s snub was influenced by more than her placement at nationals.

“The national championships aren’t the Olympic trials,’’ Hamilton told Today. “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.”

Figure skating as a sport has always been full of drama, whether it’s off-the-ice assault or judges on the take. For now, officials at U.S. Figure Skating will settle for peace and quiet before the Sochi Games begin on February 7. But if the American skaters crash and burn – especially Wagner, who has a history of coming up small in big events – they have hardly heard the last of this controversy.