Jock Talk: And then there were three

  • by Roger Brigham
  • Wednesday January 10, 2018
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Decades ago when I was a young(er) pup covering the Olympics, I decided that the biggest difference (besides temperature) between the Winter Olympics and the Summer Olympics was simple: the icy version offers tons more drama based on politics and prejudice than the sweaty version.

Yes, gymnastics and boxing can provide aggravation and mystery due to judging vagaries - but nothing compared with the likes of bobsled, luge, or figure skating, where team selection alone can produce an almost endless sense of betrayal and bitterness.

In most sports in which individual results are determined by stopwatches and measuring tape, team selection is usually pretty straightforward: unless there is an injury waiver granted, top finishers at the trials make the team.

Not so in sports in which athletes have the power to dictate who their crewmates should be, or in sports in which winning or losing depends entirely on the enormously fallible impressions of judges. And not just impressions from the trials, but from previous bodies of work.

Nowhere is this truer than the paradoxically conservative sport of figure skating. In that sport, athletes don't just spend years training to build up their skills: they spend years building up their resumes and reputations, waiting for those standing ahead of them in the rankings to peel away and give them a chance to move up.

Selected to the men's figure skating team after the nationals last weekend in San Jose were Nathan Chen, 18, who finished first and is expected to be a strong contender for gold; Vincent Zhou, 17, who fell once and was ragged on four of his quadruple jumps to finish third, and who attempted five quads but received negative grades of execution on four of them, including one fall; and Adam Rippon, 28, who came in as a heavy favorite to dazzle the crowd and become the first openly gay American Winter Olympian, only to fall early and reduce the technical level of his program on the fly to finish a disappointing fourth.

But his past performances on the international stage led the team selection committee to overlook that one errant performance and choose him over second-place finisher Ross Miner, 26, who had never dazzled on the big stage but did this night. Miner and 2014 bronze medalist Jason Brown, 23, who struggled all night, were named team alternates.

As for the women's team, it's been ages since the United States has won a medal and that drought is unlikely to end anytime soon. Ashley Wagner, 26, the 2016 world silver medalist, speaks with rare articulation and has the kind of artistic grace that judges coveted decades ago but skaters were starting to abandon for showier jumps and spins. (When I covered the 1988 nationals, all of the women skaters were bemoaning the fact they felt their sport was "becoming too athletic.") The judges in San Jose favored the more technically challenging programs, and Wagner ended up out of the top three. Making the squad were Bradie Tennell, 19; Mirai Nagasu, 24; and Karen Chen, 18.

Back on the men's team, Rippon acknowledged that his program came up short.

"I take full responsibility," Rippon said of his sub-par performance. "On the first quad lutz, I just kind of felt like I was losing my right foot a little bit. I just let that feeling get the best of me toward the end. I just sort of felt like it was gone."

And that almost meant his Olympic hopes were gone. But the judges decided he still has something to dazzle us with, and so now he is training for South Korea. He's already made history just by making the team - now let's see how this plays out.

It's all about the drama and the dreams.

Rainbow Run set for February 3

The kick-off of the quadrennial International Rainbow Memorial Run to End AIDS will be held Saturday, February 3, with a start in Golden Gate Park.

The Rainbow Run is staged every four years as a lead-up to the Gay Games, which were started in San Francisco in 1982.

Volunteers from Team SF, International FrontRunners, and the Federation of Gay Games are in the process of finalizing route and organizational details. Four years ago the run ended at a Winter Olympics demonstration at the UN Plaza. Other possible race ends being considered for this year are Justin Herman Plaza and the steps of City Hall.

After the race is held here with runners carrying the Gay Games flag, runs will be staged in other previous Gay Games host cities in the next few months. The next leg will be in Sydney Saturday, March 3, as part of the Mardi Gras celebrations, and the final leg will be August 4 in Paris, host of this year's Gay Games.

For more information, see the group's Facebook page at