Some may wonder why I have spent several days this week in reporting and writing this story about a junior team in a non-Olympic discipline of figure skating.
The answer: rules are rules, but international and national governing bodies in many Olympic sports have a tendency to stretch them, even as they spout commitment to Olympic ideals. (Yes, stretch is a euphemism). And these cases usually get little outside scrutiny.
That’s the background. Here’s the story:
A suburban Chicago synchronized skating team has been deprived of a spot at the World Junior Championships because a U.S. Figure Skating selection committee apparently both did not follow its own rules and then gave an ex-post facto justification for the selection decision.
The rules in force leave little doubt that the Chicago Jazz should have been given a place at the 2017 World Junior Championships March 10-11 in Mississauga, Ont.
The Jazz, based in Glenview, Ill., has filed a grievance with the USFS under the governing body’s provisions for such complaints.
The rules (see below) say that in the case of both senior and junior world championship selections, the teams “must include the current U.S. champion.”
The 2017 U.S. Championships do not take place until Feb. 22-25. So, when the junior world team was named Monday following a team qualifier competition with results that do not definitively determine selection, the Chicago Jazz still was the current U.S. champion, having won the 2016 title.
“Must means must. From what I have seen it appears they did not follow their rules,” said John Collins, a Chicago attorney who has represented athletes and National Governing Bodies in USOC grievance cases, known as Article IXs.
“We’re addressing this matter pursuant to our internal procedures,” U.S. Figure Skating spokeswoman Barbara Reichert said.
In response to a letter from a person involved with the Jazz asking for an explanation of the decision, USFS officials appear to have added verbiage that is both factually inaccurate and unsupported by any rule.
In that response, signed by USFS administrative / legal group coordinator Steve Wolkin and synchronized management subcommittee chair Robin Greenleaf, the final paragraph says, “In other words, ICR 5.15(A) provides that the Junior World Synchronized Skating Team must include the current U.S. Champion that is determined currently at the Junior World Qualifier.”
In fact, in the 2016-17 edition of the USFS Rulebook, ICR (International Competition Rule) 5.15 (A) reads as follows, with no mention of the U.S. champion being determined by the qualifier:
“The U.S. World Synchronized Skating Team must include the current U.S. champion. The remaining selection (if designated) will be based upon the results of the two most recent U.S. Synchronized Skating Championships, the most recent World Championships and all other international events.”
The rulebook, in 5:15 (C), further says that the junior teams will be selected using the criteria described in ICR 5.15 (A) and (B). ICR 5.15 (B) says only that the results of the special selection meet “will be considered” in picking the team.
USA Synchronized Skating’s media guide belies the contention that the national champion is determined by the special selection meet. In both 2016 and 2015, the listed national junior champion is a different team than the selection meet winner.
And then there is the conflict-of-interest involved in having three members of the synchronized management subcommittee (SMS) as judges in the special selection event. That committee also picks the world meet teams.
Reichert could not confirm if the three judges in question recused themselves from selection discussions.
The current junior champion also was not picked for the season’s major world event in 2013 and 2014, even though the selection rules were the same as those in place this season. Both times, Team Braemar of Edina, Minn. was left home. Calls to Team Braemar for comment were not returned.
In December, USFS approved a change in figure skating world team selection rules to remove the automatic qualification for the reigning national champion. Such a change had been made to its Olympic selection procedures beginning in 2014.
No such change was made for synchronized skating, according to Reichert.
Synchronized skating hopes to gain a place on the Winter Olympic sports program for 2022. The International Skating Union had asked the International Olympic Committee to consider adding synchro for the 2018 Olympics, but the IOC executive board rejected it while approving new events in snowboarding, Alpine skiing, speedskating and curling.
The junior synchronized selection controversy owes in part to scheduling that has the national championships take place either after or very close to the major world event of the season, which is either the World Championships (held biennially since 2013) or the World Challenge Cup, held annually from 2001 through 2012 and in even years since.
That scheduling has meant synchronized skating needed to have held an earlier selection meet to help pick the world team.
In this year’s meet, held last weekend, Chicago Jazz was second to Skyliners, with Lexettes third. Yet the selection committee chose Skyliners and Lexettes to go to worlds.
Ironically, in all 10 previous seasons for which selection meet results could be found, including those from 2009 through 2016, the top two teams in that selection competition always had been picked for the World Challenge or World Championships.
The applicable rules, with pertinent sections highlighted:
ICR 5.15 The SMS will nominate the teams to all international competitions.
A. The U.S. World Synchronized Skating Team must include the current U.S. champion. The remaining selection (if designated) will be based upon the results of the two most recent U.S. Synchronized Skating Championships, the most recent World Championships and all other international events.
B. When team selections are necessary prior to the United States Synchronized Skating Championships, a special event may be used for this purpose. Results will be considered along with those described in ICR 5.15 (A) for selecting teams to the U.S. World Synchronized Skating Team.
C. The United States Synchronized Skating Junior World Championships Team will be selected using the criteria described in ICR 5.15 (A) and (B).