I like young women in teeny skirts as much as the next guy, but I’ve never been a big fan of figure skating. Skating is okay in small doses. It’s better than ballet where almost no-one ever falls. There’s always the suspense of disaster, sort of like NASCAR in tights.
Anyway, my DVR program ended and I found myself watching the last two female skaters in the US Figure Skating Championship. Mirai Nagasu was waiting for the music to start. The NBC announcers, former champions themselves, started worrying. As the 20-year-old Ms Nagasu began her performance, the announcers referenced her past disappointments, drama, and “melt-downs.” Meanwhile, what I saw was brilliant. The lady was perfect. Her movements were as smooth as the wind, her jumps and spins precise. On one twirling jump, she came down on the edge of her skate blade. I nearly fell off the sofa, but she continued without a wobble or quiver. That’s worth a medal right there, I said to myself. The commentators were less generous. They worried that the officials would judge that landing harshly. They continued to criticize her performance and seemed surprised every time she got a movement right. And every movement was flawless.
She displayed personality and showmanship, but the commentators said that she was tired, breathing hard and “left holes” in her routine. Her music was the James Bond theme and “You Only Live Twice”—perhaps linking the Japanese setting of that film to Ms Nagasu’s own background. She even included subtle finger-pistol gestures within her arm movements. I sat mesmerized, but as Ms Nagasu neared the end, the commentators noted that she still had one last jump to get through, as if this would be the time she’d fail. She didn’t. Then she executed one of those evolving spins that begins bent down to the ice and opens up to become a cherry-on-the-sundae finish. The crowd gave her a standing ovation, and even the commentators conceded she had done well. To that point, their entire dialogue seemed to have been setting up an I-told-you-so face-saving instead of an honest evaluation of a fantastic performance.
I hoped that the judges were less concerned with history than with what they saw. Her program had run one second over the allotted time, but the judges still scored her high enough to give her second place. With only one skater remaining, Ms Nagasu could not be knocked off the podium. Her delight was heartwarming.
Gracie Gold came onto the ice. She was the front-runner coming into this final competition. The commentators said that this 18-year-old blonde was fresh and youthful—apparently in contrast to the doddering twenty-year-old who preceded her. Ms Gold was good. The commentators said she jumped higher in her triple axle than anyone else. I found her performance too crisp and mechanical. She had less content than Ms Nagasu, but apparently no “holes.” Ms Gold also fell—not flat, but had to catch herself with first one hand on the ice and then the other. The commentators ignored this. Ms Gold was their champion.
I replayed both performances for my wife, who has been a figure skating fan since childhood. She was not impressed by Ms Gold, but had glowing things to say about Ms Nagasu’s performance.
The judges, however, agreed with the NBC commentators and gave the top spot to Ms Gold, which dropped Ms Nagasu to bronze.
The next day, the U.S. Olympic committee kicked Ms Nagasu down one more step to first alternate, and gave the third spot on the Olympic team to Ashley Wagner who’d fallen twice during her long routine. The rule that you’re only as good as your last performance doesn’t apply in figure skating. [see https://www.bostonglobe.com/sports/2014/01/13/ashley-wagner-mirai-nagasu-off-olympic-figure-skating-team-here-why/0juHqvjYXdlM28Ozef8U0O/story.html]
All of this reminded me of the political wrangling over lifting the sanctions against Iran. Do we move forward with the conciliatory gestures in front of us, or do we ignore them to focus on past history? In the Olympics, we send three skaters in each category in the hopes that at least one of them will wind up on the podium. In disarmament proceedings, we set up safeguards and inspections. What some call “luck” is really often the ability to recognize opportunities and seize them. We have a chance to salvage peace from the risk of war, just as the Olympic Committee had the chance to use a talented athlete who’s gotten her act together over one who may be entering a slump.