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Gracie Gold v. Ashley Wagner

The problem with stardom over strength

Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images

As this year’s reigning U.S. Champion in ladies' figure skating, 18-year-old Gracie Gold has surpassed her Olympic teammates Ashley Wagner and Polina Edmunds in both standing and salability—and the latter by a somewhat wider margin. Even viewers who’ve only briefly tuned in to NBC’s Olympic coverage have probably seen her. In United Airlines’ “Athletes Aboard” commercial, which features curlers, skiers, speed skaters, bobsledders, and hockey players boarding a 777 in full competitive regalia, Gracie provides the prestige finale, gliding down the aisle to a fluttering Gershwin crescendo. In one of the several Visa commercials that have received heavy airplay at this Olympics, we again see Gracie, this time in extreme close-up as she applies make-up, telling viewers: “I may not look very tough, but I can accelerate faster than the guys on the racetrack, take harder impacts than a rider being thrown from a bull, and handle more G-force than a fighter pilot. But why just be extreme,” she asks, “when you can be extremely graceful?” The commercial closes with a dizzying scratch spin. The cameras linger on her arms-up final pose longer than the spin itself. The star has eclipsed the skater.

The experts agree: If a female figure skater can be extremely graceful, she doesn’t need to be extremely gifted at anything else. As Gracie began her short program last night, commentator Sandra Bezic (a former pairs skater) remarked that Gracie looked “like the figure skater figurine in a jewel box.” Retired Olympian Apolo Ohno, who filmed a fluff piece with Gracie which aired last night, said he was impressed with the way Gracie “seemed so well-polished” on her first trip to the Games—a description that brings to mind the medals more than the athletes who will win them. She was, Bob Costas agreed, “a very appealing young woman”; to Scott Hamilton, also commentating on the ladies' skating short program last night, Gracie was, simply, “everything you want in a ladies champion skater.”

Ladies' figure skating is unique among Olympic sports in many ways, but perhaps most notably in how willing its audiences are to cheer for a competitor they have never previously watched perform: One winning smile is enough to convince them that its owner deserves to triumph. This season marks only the second year Gracie has spent competing at the Olympic and World Championship level—compare her record to that of the now somewhat image-challenged Ashley Wagner, who marks her seventh season this year. In that time, audiences have had the chance to watch Ashley grow and mature as both a skater and a woman, to improve as a competitor, to develop athleticism and artistry, and to develop from a girl who slinked uncertainly out onto center ice into a proud young woman full of strut and swagger. The familiarity viewers have with Ashley should logically make her the favorite; instead, she arrived at this Olympics as little more than damaged goods.

Ashley’s growth was on full display during the short program last night: She had done everything her sport desired of her, and everything the competition required, turning in a clean, confident, and compelling performance. But when her music ended, Ashley’s smile seemed to announce that she was proud of herself, of her journey, and of her struggle to be at the Games. When Gracie threw her arms back at the end of her short program, she looked less proud than euphoric as she basked in the audience’s applause—in short, fulfilling the promise of her commercial. Those who have watched Ashley Wagner for all these years know her skating and know who she is as a skater, and what she can bring to the Games. Gracie, so new to the sport and to its audiences, seems more like the idea of a skater—the ideal, the image, the “figurine in a jewel box”—than the reality. In any other sport, this anonymity would make her a nonentity. In figure skating, it has made her a star.

The value of novelty in ladies' figure skating has less to do with the sport’s realities than it does with the narratives we bring to it, and in particular with the narrative into which so many successful women must fit themselves: the Cinderella story. In all its variations, it is a story not just of beauty and virtue rewarded, but of a heroine who rises from rags to riches without visible effort of any kind. Cinderella has the audacity not to do but to desire: she wishes to go to the ball, to escape servitude, and to be loved, and those around her recognize that she is worthy of all she wishes for, and turn her wishes into reality.

Watching—and packaging, and promoting—a ladies' figure skating event, we can’t help but place ourselves in the role of fairy godmother, allowing ourselves both to take credit for a skater’s victory and to avoid seeing her as having studied and sweated and worked for her reward. When we watch a skater whose competitive record is familiar to us—particularly one with a career as storied as Ashley Wagner’s—this history can begin to seem more like a rap sheet. Ashley has experienced crushing defeats, contradicting the Cinderella logic that holds failure and virtue to be mutually exclusive. And finally, her competitive history allows viewers to see her for what she is—a determined, methodical, and profoundly talented young athlete—rather than an unknown hoping to achieve not strength, but stardom.

By emerging as America’s newly-crowned sweetheart shortly before the Olympics began, Gracie Gold gave us the chance to love her as a star—to love the idea of her skating, but not its problematic reality—before we had the chance to see her skate at all. Gracie ended the short program in fourth place, meaning she has a chance—albeit a slim one—to take the gold tonight. If she does so, it seems likely that she’ll follow in the footsteps of other young women who rose to Olympic success and its attendant stardom before they had fully matured as athletes: immediate retirement from amateur competition, and a departure from the sport soon after. Neither Oksana Baiul nor Tara Lipinski—who were 16 and 15, respectively, when they won Olympic gold—stayed in the sport long enough to compete in the World Championships just a few weeks later. Sarah Hughes, who won Olympic gold at sixteen, retired the following year. All achieved the ultimate in stardom, but all left skating behind before they achieved their full potential in the sport.

Looking back at past Olympics, it seems that the figure skaters who never quite reach the gold—and never quite earn the title of America’s sweetheart—are the ones who have the most lasting effect on their sport. If Michelle Kwan, Sasha Cohen, Nancy Kerrigan, and Jill Trenary—to name just a few—hadn’t had a disappointing first Olympics, they might never have developed the artistry, elegance, strength, and daring they achieved in later seasons, or turned in performances that inspired new generations of skaters, and changed the face of the sport itself. If Gracie wins the gold tonight, there is no doubt that the world will know her as a star. But if she misses her shot at the gold—or even at the podium—and keeps working, competing, and growing as a skater, the world will know her as something even better: an athlete.

Sarah Marshall is currently at work on a book about women's roles in media spectacle. She lives in Portland, Oregon.