Emergency Opining! My Opining post was originally going to be after the completion of Four Continents, but the ladies' free skate results today warranted an extra post. It was a rollercoaster of an event for the women. When it was all said and done, the top three after the short program finished second, fourth, and eighth, and two skaters came from behind to make it onto the podium. One of those skaters was Mirai Nagasu, who skated a career-best free skate to take the bronze.
So what's the emergency? Well, Nagasu finished fourth at Nationals and was left off the World team, while US champion Karen Chen had a rough go and finished 12th. All of this set off a chorus of questions over the selection process for Worlds for Team USA. The previous season's Four Continents results are currently part of the selection criteria for the current season. There's an argument to be made for the current season's Four Continents to be used for the current season's selection criteria.
Do you make the selection after the US Championships, as US Figure Skating, Japan Skating Federation, and Skate Canada do, or do you wait until the month before Worlds like Figure Skating Federation of Russia does?
It really is not an easy answer. And certainly not as easy as it may seem.
The problem with the current methodology
As it stands, the body-of-work methodology that USFS uses has the advantage of allowing all skaters to make a case for themselves at the US Championships. Everyone is put on equal footing to compete against everyone else, and it's an apples-to-apples comparison. Plus, there is a general assumption that the US Championships are as pressure-filled as any competition gets, and thus doing well there is necessarily an indicator of doing well at Worlds or the Olympics.
One of the main issues with this process is that the team is essentially selected with almost a third of the season (two months) still left to go. And a lot can change in those two months, including a big competition like Four Continents.
Had Four Continents been part of the criteria, the dynamics of the competition we just saw would have completely changed. In Nagasu's case, in particular, this competition became something of a consolation prize because she doesn't have Worlds to worry about and no additional burden (e.g., the determination of Olympic spots) comes into play at this competition. You can argue that the change in stakes could have completely altered the landscape here. And had none of the three skaters done well, what do you do? Do you stick with the team or do you go to the next skater down at Nationals, albeit one who didn't have the burden to deliver under this pressure?
The problem with using Four Continents
And therein lies a large part of the issue with using Four Continents as a most-recent indicator. It has the potential of comparing apples to oranges because you can only send three skaters to this competition. Had Four Continents been part of the criteria, Ashley Wagner would most certainly have participated instead of opting out to increase training time. And with Wagner here, there would not have been a Nagasu breakthrough performance to compare against - simply because Nagasu would not have been able to go with three spots per country. So even if Chen and Bell performed exactly the way they did here, the fairness of comparing two skaters who faced the pressure of having to deliver at this competition against the hypothetical performance of a skater who wasn't at this competition would be completely out of whack.
Then what do you do? Do you tell one or two skaters after Nationals that their Worlds spot is secure and make Four Continents a tiebreaker for, say, the skaters who finished in third, fourth, and fifth? But then why have this skate-off here when you already had it at Nationals? It is then no longer about how a skater fares in international competition anymore; rather, it might as well just be a redo of Nationals in an international competition setting. So if there were to be a change in selection methodology, the usage of Four Continents as a criterion needs to be clear.
And just a little context to leave you with
It's important to note that the current selection methodology used by USFS, JSF, and Skate Canada is also a vestige of the days when Four Continents was not around (it began in 1999) or was a competition that many of the top skaters opted out of (until recent seasons). Should they rethink it now that Four Continents has played a bigger role in the skating world? Absolutely. But making a criteria change right now would only discredit USFS, because there was no expectation of this competition being a selection event for this year's Worlds.
And next season? Well, the US Championships are already held two weeks earlier than usual to accommodate the Olympics in mid-February (Worlds is usually at the end of March). Four Continents, incidentally, will be held in Taiwan just two weeks before the Olympics take place.
But one thing is for sure - the athletes are not the ones who should be feeling the burden of a selection process they have no control over. It is up to USFS to refine the methodology to optimize the team that eventually represents Team USA at the most important competitions of the season. Doing it retroactively would be a disservice to the team and to the athletes.