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2014 Winter Olympics: Why The Figure Skating Team Trophy Doesn't Work

Victoria Gordon |
February 6, 2014 | 3:24 p.m. PST

She may be the queen, but Michelle Kwan is not an Olympic champion. (kevinrushforth/Wikimedia Commons)
She may be the queen, but Michelle Kwan is not an Olympic champion. (kevinrushforth/Wikimedia Commons)
How many Olympic Gold Medals does Michelle Kwan have? Most would guess at least one. Actually, in two Olympic cycles, Kwan picked up a silver (in 1998) and a bronze (in 2002). No gold. What a shame for Kwan that she didn't get the opportunity to compete in the Olympic Team Trophy. 

The 2014 Sochi Olympics will be the first to feature the team segment. Skaters from each of the four disciplines (men's singles, ladies' singles, pairs, ice dance) compete their individual programs not to receive individual glory, but to accumulate points for their country based on performance. Each placement carries a certain number of points, and the highest point-bearing "team" wins an Olympic medal. 

The event first began as a separate, end-of-season competition in 2009. The top skaters from six countries were invited to participate-- the main impetus for worn-out skaters to turn up post-season was prize money (the winning nation, for instance, received $200,000 to split amongst the team members). The event has since been held twice more, in 2012 and 2013. At some point, it was co-opted into the Olympics. 

The team event is problematic for a variety of reasons. Allow me to break down some of the issues: 

"Team" is a really bad word

Imagine, if you will, the following scenario. In addition to the 2014 Super Bowl's main game, there was an individual event that happened just before the game itself. Here, each team selected the top, say, five players from the team and had those five compete, one by one, by playing their position. That doesn't work, right? This is the same situation, only in reverse. There is no "team" in this team event. Individual skaters are participating in an individual event with the goal of contributing to a score that allegedly represents the nation's status in the skating world. What it really represents is good skaters skating well in competition. I've watched teams win medals despite one skater underperforming, and that's because this really isn't about teamwork. Call it a group event or a national event. But it's not a team event. 

It's badly placed

This team event is taking place before the skaters perform individually. No matter how valuable this medal may be, these skaters have spent their whole careers working for the established individual medals. Why jeopardize their opportunities there by scheduling this first? This kind of competition could easily be exhausting, and while some supporters of the team event argue that similar things have happened in qualifying for Worlds, this is the Olympics. There will be camera crews and spectators everywhere. As long as our culture puts a premium on the Olympics, this will be a much harder competition than qualifying at Worlds. 

The podium from the 2012 World Team Trophy. (Wikimedia/Creative Commons)
The podium from the 2012 World Team Trophy. (Wikimedia/Creative Commons)

The rules were poorly planned

The fact that this event begins later this week and some nations haven't even named their teams is trouble enough. The fact that the rules essentially allow for a nation to have a skater "withdraw" after the short program and be "replaced" before the free skate opens the door for abuse by better-established skating federations. If each nation were required to submit one name and stick to that one name, it'd be a more fair competition, but to avoid issues of exhaustion (see "it's badly placed"), many nations with more than one skater in each discipline will swap athletes out. In general, I don't have a problem with this, but these athletes are only withdrawing from one segment of the competition -- they'll be back for their respective individual competitions. That alone should be a red flag; athletes shouldn't go into competition knowing that they can't handle it. 

It diminishes the value of the medal

As I mentioned, Michelle Kwan, who will always be remembered as one of the greatest figure skaters in history, has never won an Olympic Gold Medal. She may have won five World Titles and countless other events in her career, but she never captured that ultimate Olympic glory. In Sochi, one of the ten competing teams will win a gold medal. What are the odds that all four members of said team would actually win individual gold medals? The only team that could possibly have even four medalists is Russia, but Russia's team is perhaps the most volatile of any, and they definitely don't have four gold medalists on hand. The idea that any number of "close, but not all the way there" athletes could claim to be a gold medalist after this is a slap in the face to legends like Kwan, Kurt Browning and Sasha Cohen, skaters who were on teams that could have won a gold without a second thought, but who predated the team competition. 

Overall, I'm not opposed to the idea that this could turn out to be wonderful. For all I know, in four years, I'll be writing about the merits of this amazing new segment. But today, given the current landscape of figure skating, I just see it as an opportunity to tire out skaters and ignore the achievements of those who came before the team segment. Either way, I wish the best to all the skaters competing in the 2014 Olympic Team Trophy. Go make Olympic history! 

Email Victoria Gordon here.



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