The saying goes that no publicity is bad publicity, and to an extent that's true, but there is such a thing as bad drama and Olympic figure skating has a raging case of it. After her final free skate in Sochi earned her a seventh place slot in the final Olympic line-up, figure skater Ashley Wagner cried foul, telling reporters she felt "gypped." And while cries of judging inaccuracy were rampant following the night's true upset — Yuna Kim taking the silver medal while surprise success Adelina Sotnikova took the gold — Wagner's complaints have taken on a life of their own, and not in a good way.
And that's because Wagner has been a controversy magnet since she was appointed to the Olympic team after coming in fourth place during the U.S. national competition. While typical procedure dictates that the top three skaters from that competition go onto the Olympics, Wagner was promoted based on her past performances rather than the disastrous one that cost her a top three ranking.
Later, when she hit the ice in Sochi and failed to garner the score she thought she deserved, Wagner was caught on camera making the indignant face that would become a meme. Now, with a seventh place ranking, Wagner is continuing her reign of dramatic displays by blaming the judging system for her own failures. She's been painted as a complainer, so naturally this new story has significant legs.
She told reporters:
People don't want to watch a sport where you see people fall down and somehow score above someone who goes clean. It is confusing and we need to make it clear for you.
To be completely honest, this sport needs fans and needs people who want to watch it. People do not want to watch a sport where they see someone skate lights out and they can't depend on that person to be the one who pulls through. People need to be held accountable.
In her final skate in Sochi, Wagner took to the ice with fire, landing every one of her jumps on a night when almost every other skater — including her teammate Gracie Gold — tumbled on the ice. When she finished her routine, she fist-pumped into the air, thrilled with the strength of her performance. But while Wagner's skate was technically "clean" because she didn't fall, it wasn't necessarily a winning skate, especially when judges have the ability to use instant replay to make sure that not only did each skater stick her landings, but that she did so with technical perfection. And as the NBC commentators pointed out, Wagner's wasn't enough.
But claims of judging inaccuracies are no new piece of the figure skating competition puzzle. Per Peter Schrager at Fox Sports, "In the end, figure skating and judging controversies just have a rich and long, storied history together. If anyone thought they wouldn't have skated in tandem at these Olympics at some point, they were being naive." Wagner's complaints are par for the course, but they do stick out considering they follow the notion that she believes she was judged unfairly.
But believe it or not, scores are based on a point system and the sheer fact of the matter is that while some skaters fell, including the gold-medal winner, the skaters with higher scores attempted routines primed for higher technical marks. Yes, it's confusing to the viewer because viewers aren't professional skaters. Yes, it creates drama and confusion. But that intrigue is actually good for the sport. It makes people interested, it makes them passionate, and it creates a need to learn more about the sport itself, unlike the drama drummed up by Wagner's indignant behavior. While it would be far easier to watch a pretty sport full of pretty routines and assume that the one that was the most fun or the most pretty receives the highest marks, that's simply not how it works.
As someone who danced competitively for years, I can vouch for the fact that in sports where art and grace is mixed with technical aspects, it can be difficult to wrap your head around scores and rankings. A ridiculously beautiful routine can be struck with a low score because a dancer's toes weren't fully pointed or her arms weren't fully extended. It's a similar case in skating, which makes for a rather murky judging process and plenty of hurt feelings, but railing against the process so vehemently isn't helping anything. In fact, it takes away from viewers' understanding of and appreciation for the sport.
Of course, there have been worse dramatic set-backs. Wagner making indignant faces and crying foul when she doesn't come out on top isn't exactly the Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding controversy from the '90s, but it is disappointing.
When we're focusing on the shock and awe of one skater feeling "gypped," we're allowing the sport to become a soap opera where hurt feelings and diva antics are currency above athleticism and true competition. We're focusing on the drama of words and not the drama of the skate itself, which — if you caught any of Thursday night's competition — is pretty damn enthralling on its own. No cocksure commentary necessary.