Okay, everyone, brace yourselves, because in keeping with my ever-intensifying ambitions for excellence in driving readers away, I'm going to post about something new—an issue I've never written a word about before—and if you're lucky, I never will again.
(All of you who thought that any post was better than no posts at all are about to be proven sadly mistaken.)
Ready? It's an issue that I'm certain all of you are fascinated by on a daily basis, namely, the world of figure skating.
(Pardon me whilst I zip up my jacket, as I can feel the breeze from people fleeing the site, screaming for their very lives. All six or seven of you.)
This is an Olympic year, of course, and the venerable Winter Games are nearly upon us. Consequently, even more than bobsledding and luge and other young whipper-necker-snappers getting air and stuff, Jeni and I are looking forward to the unique combination of extraordinary athleticism and dancing artistry that is modern figure skating (hardly the tracing of figures that it once was, and is still named for).
And why is this issue on my mind today? What issue of worldwide import requires that none other than I, Obi-Wan of Forward Biased (HEY! I heard that...whaddya mean who?? And no sniggering in the back!) should be compelled to write about it?
It is the inclusion of the great, the incomparable, the inimitable Michelle Kwan in this year's Olympic delegation to Torino, Italy.
Now, Michelle has few fans more enthusiastic than I, just in case I haven't been clear about that. Being unapologetically a Real Man, I had never voluntarily watched so much as one minute of this stuff in my life before Jeni managed to suck me into the world of skating during the 80s, long before Michelle ever made her national debut, so that I've followed her incredible career from the beginning (remember the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan debacle of 1992? Michelle was there) and I've cheered for her with each medal she's won on her way to becoming THE most decorated skater, male or female, in US history. That includes 42 championships, including winning ten consecutive National medals, nine of them championships, something no one has accomplished since 1924. Since she glided elegantly onto the scene in 1992 she has been nothing short of a phenomenon.
(These were also the days when there were men, such as Brian Boitano and Paul Wylie, who skated like men, not like ladies. They could be elegant and artistic in a thoroughly masculine way and were a joy to watch.)
But Michelle has been far, far more than merely a stellar athlete. In keeping with the nature of modern figure skating, the sheer beauty, elegance, fire and passion of her performances have made her the most beloved skater in recent memory, not to mention transforming uncounted numbers of Real Men into figure skating fans. To paraphrase the words of ABC's Jim McKay, in a galaxy of comets and shooting stars, she has been a constant, brilliant, unwavering star that young aspiring skaters could wish upon. Others, such as Tara Lipinsky and Sarah Hughes, have bested her at the Olympics, but both have faded from view by now, while (my words) Kwan remains the most elegantly beautiful skater ever to lace up, bar none, and may remain so for decades, if not forever. Re-watching her greatest performances can still bring chills—I can even forget myself and want to leap up and cheer with the crowd even though I'm not there, and I know Michelle couldn't hear me even if I were. The only athlete in the world for whom I would truly go out of my way—WAY out of my way—just to shake her hand (and hopefully get an autograph), is Michelle Kwan. One day I must needs make a pilgrimage to do just that. I don't exactly face toward Torrance, CA five times a day, but I respect and admire her achievements more than those of any other athlete of my time, and I'd rather watch her perform than anyone else.
I say all these things for a reason, of course, because of all the gold medals (not to mention hearts) she has won, there is yet one missing from her otherwise stellar resume.
The Olympic gold.
She's been there twice, 1998 and 2002. Oh, she medalled all right, both times, in fact, but silver and bronze are but a poor consolation when one is so intent on winning gold.
And all this is why she's going to Torino this year, even though many have good reason to believe that she should not be. Herein lies the controversy.
Her post-junior national career has spanned thirteen years already, which is a long, long time for this kind of an athlete. It soon will be time for the intensity of her competitive days to end and time for her to turn professional. Some say this time has already passed.
Me? I think they have a point. During her early years one of her strongest assets was her ability to consistently perform with excellence under pressure no matter where she was or who she was competing against. In recent years this consistency has no longer been there, 2002 being the quintessential example. In an incredible "series of (un)fortunate events," Sarah Hughes, who went into the free skate in fourth place, performed spectacularly, the very skate of her short life, while all three of the seasoned leaders, including Michelle, The Favorite of Favorites, stumbled and fell and otherwise screwed up their chances to win. As a result, a very young and inexperienced newcomer—for the second time in two Olympics—won the gold medal.
Though she did win the 2005 Nationals, she hasn't won the World Championships since 2003. And, due to two injuries (hardly her fault), she has barely skated competitively at all during the last entire year. She went nearly nine months without competing at all until 11 Dec. 2005, and that was for an "American-Idol" type of event (the Marshalls US Figure Skating Challenge in Boston), hardly an Olympic-level competition. Most notably, and worst, from the perspective of getting on the Olympic roster, she was unable to skate last week in this year's Nationals. In an Olympic year, the Nationals are largely (but not exclusively) regarded as the mechanism by which that year's Olympic team will be selected, and some are crying foul that the US Olympic Committee has told Michelle that, pending a "test" skate before the Committee in a couple of weeks, she will be on the Olympic team in spite of her failure to skate at all there.
[The] figure skating federation is making a joke of itself, the Games and the core value that the Olympic movement always cherishes. That is, whenever it is convenient to cherish the core value: Fairness.
...Michelle Kwan is going to be on the U.S. Olympic team again. Because, well, she's Michelle Kwan!
She's cute. She wears Vera Wang costumes, for gosh sakes. And even at 25, she can still pull off the ponytail thing.
In the weird, wild world of figure skating, stuff like that — not to mention already-signed contracts with Olympic sponsors and built-in TV appeal — always trumps the field of competition.
I gotta give that guy (John P. Lopez, writing for the Houston Chronicle) props for style and snark, but there's a problem. You see, as even he points out, she is Michelle Kwan, but what he doesn't see is that that's still worth something. Quite a lot, in fact.
This year the sassy, technically marvelous, but inconsistent Sasha Cohen topped the Nationals, followed by 16-year-olds Kimmie Meissner and Emily Hughes (the younger sister of Sarah Hughes, who was the same age when she won the Olympics in 2002). And fairness, say those like Lopez, demands that the three available spots on the Olympic team should go to the top three at the Nationals.
But it has ever been thus that placing at the Nationals is not a guarantee of a trip to the Olympics. The USOC takes into consideration each skater's resume and experience as well, such as happened in 1992 when US figure skating became a soap-opera as Tonya Harding was connected to a "conspiracy" to injure favorite Nancy Kerrigan and prevent her from competing, and possibly winning, the Nationals. Kerrigan was awarded a spot on the Olympic team on the basis of her superior resume, not to mention the doctors' promises that her injury would be fully healed in time for her to get back into shape before the Games. (In what must have been the experience of her short life, a 13-year-old Michelle Kwan accompanied the team as an alternate, just in case the IOC barred Harding from skating at the last minute).
So there you go. Should Michelle get a spot on the team this year?
Since I just know you're simply dying to find out what I think, here's what I, um, think.
I have to preface this by saying that the Olympics carry the distinction of being the most elite competition in the world, towering over even the World Championships, for two main reasons: the Olympics come but once every four years, and long tradition. They're the Olympics, after all—the venerable auld games founded and anchored in ancient Greek civilization. And every world-class athlete in the world, once he has risen to the top of the pack in his own nation, has already dreamed for years of standing atop the highest pedestal at the Olympics. Michelle Kwan is no exception, and her two trips to those world-renowned games have brought heartbreak to her most ardent fans as she did what every Olympian fears: she took the one chance that the Olympics hands each athlete, that one opportunity to do your best, and had a bad day.
Everyone has bad days. But you don't want them to come during the dang Olympic games.
But they did. Twice. And some of us, including me, four years ago, said, "this is the end. This was her last real chance to win Olympic gold."
Michelle did not share that view, and I don't know whether she's being courageous or foolish. Not that I'm particularly in a position to know, of course.
The USOC's position is that she certainly deserves a slot on the Olympic team, and if she can demonstrate that she can still skate, she will go. And she has promised that if she doesn't feel she is 100% up to the task, she will bow out in time for someone else to be on the team.
In addition, although Emily Hughes finished third in the Nationals, and may well eclipse her sister in coming years, she almost certainly will not be able to place at the Olympics. Not with the likes of Irina Slutskaya competing. Yes, surprises have happened before, but they were, well, surprises. That's the whole point. You don't send someone to the Olympics because they might surprise everyone. You send those with the best chance to win. And, although Michelle might be a long shot to win, she has a lot better chance of doing so than does Hughes.
So is this unfair to Emily Hughes, bronze medalist at the Nationals? Or would it be unfair to Michelle Kwan to send Hughes?
I personally think Michelle is being unrealistic to think she can win the gold. I think she should have gone pro four years ago and capitalized on her well-earned fame. But I'm not the one who decides those things. She is. And going professional means forever giving up on your Olympic dream.
Mostly, regardless of my opinion, she deserves a chance to do what she thinks best, including going to Torino, simply because she is Michelle Kwan. Sit on that and sit-spin, Lopez.
I truly hope I'm dead wrong about her ability.
And I'll be watching—and hoping—and cheering her on as always.