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Olympic Figure Skating Judges Make Controversial Selections

Jan 7, 2018
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The Winter Olympics are upon us. They start next month. And if you plan to watch, chances are figure skating will be one of the reasons. It's a driver of television ratings, a fan favorite, and every so often, a source of drama. This year is no exception. The U.S. national championships just wrapped up in San Jose. The Olympic teams were picked shortly after, and we'll let Christine Brennan of USA Today take it from here. She joins us via Skype. Christine, good to talk with you again.

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Michel, my pleasure. Thanks so much.

MARTIN: So let's start with the women's event. Ashley Wagner is a superstar. She's certainly a name that a lot of people know, but she didn't make the team. She was not happy about that. What happened?

BRENNAN: Yeah, it was interesting because a lot of us thought going in she would make the team. She's got the international reputation. She's got the world silver medal from just 21 months ago. And while people might say, well, wait a minute, what about now versus reputation? Well, she's actually still one of the two or three best American skaters in the world. But the judges hammered her, and we never see that. For some reason, the judges basically said here that, Ashley, you know, we're going to hold you to a higher standard. It was as if they said, hey, goodbye, you know, get out of here.

Extraordinary. I've never seen anything quite like it. But the - what has happened is U.S. judges, Michel, have said they wanted to go with younger skaters. They picked Brady Tennell as the national champion. This is kind of the Russianization (ph) of U.S. figure skating. The little jumping beans that are winning the titles in the world are from Russia, and I think the U.S. basically said, if we can't beat them, let's join them. Let's get rid of the older skaters. Let's get the new kids going. And that's exactly what happened here.

MARTIN: So let's talk about the men's side. What happened there?

BRENNAN: Well, Nathan Chen is going to be an Olympic medal contender, maybe even for the gold - 18 years old. He made it. He ran away with the competition - no problem, and he's made the Olympic team. Second place Saturday night was Ross Miner. But as skating is, Michel, you move from the competition to the committee room. And following a bizarre kind of arcane set of criteria, a committee dropped Ross Miner and did not put him on the team, brought in a man named Adam Rippon to join Vincent Zhou and Nathan Chen as the three men who will go to the Olympics.

MARTIN: Well, what happens now? Do you think it will affect how people watch the Olympics next month? What are your thoughts about that?

BRENNAN: It will have absolutely no impact on the medals. But in terms of leaving a sour taste in the mouths of skaters - the young kids who skate everyday who watched last night, and then saw the way that the committee voted, the coaches - I talked to Mark Mitchell who was left off the '92 Olympic team in a very similar twist. He was talking about, why even have the nationals? We even come? Why did we pay for a hotel? Why did Ross Miner spend the money to travel here if his performance didn't matter? So I think it's a black eye for the sport, even though in terms of pivoting to the Olympics, U.S. figure skating is saying, OK, done with that, moving on. And the bottom line is skating always has controversy. And here we are once again. It never, ever, ever disappoints.

MARTIN: That's Christine Brennan reporting from San Jose and the U.S. National Figure Skating Championships. She reports for USA Today. Christine, thank you.

BRENNAN: Michel, my pleasure. Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.