Last night, in the men’s figure skating short program, America’s medal hopeful Nathan Chen had a disastrous routine. He still qualified for tonight’s free skate, but his performance was so bad—by his standards—that he has no chance to medal. It’s a big disappointment for the 18-year-old and for U.S. skating, but certainly not a career-ender. However, it was glaringly obvious that he wasn’t prepared for the pressure of figure skating’s most prestigious event, and really the only one in which the eyes of the entire world are on the sport. While his top competitors aced their routines, Chen made an error on every jump, and fell on his first.
Now, in Chen’s defense, he was facing an unbelievable amount of stress. Everything in his career thus far led up to those three minutes on the ice in PyeongChang, and when you consider how much is at stake in such a short window, and how many eyes are on these skaters, it’s actually amazing that anybody manages not to wilt.
That said, the Olympics are very good for figure skating. Without the spotlight that shines on the sport every four years, it’s impossible to imagine the loss of prestige. Whatever status it maintains would disappear overnight, and with it the money that fuels national training programs. Insofar as there is “hype” generated by the media, it’s a good thing—figure skating is one of the centerpieces of the winter Olympics (data is difficult to find, but I can’t imagine that any sport draws higher ratings in America, with the possible exception of a gold medal men’s hockey game), and media coverage is a big reason for that. Television magnifies the drama and beauty and athleticism inherent to the sport, and creates compelling, almost unbearably tense narratives. It’s unmissable.
So the extent that the U.S. media is responsible for any hype surrounding Nathan Chen, I would argue that it’s good for figure skating, and therefore good for Chen himself. His personal net worth is likely in the millions, and without the Olympic hype, there’s no way he would have signed endorsement deals with Kellogg’s, Bridgestone, United Airlines, Nike, Coca-Cola. Or, if he would have landed some of those deals, they would be far less lucrative.
And even with that hype taken into account, it’s still not really that much hype, at least by American sport standards. I’m a huge sports fan, and I love the winter Olympics, but until a month ago, I had never heard of Nathan Chen. In a week, I will forget him again until 2022 at the earliest. My experience reflects the overwhelming majority of American fans—figure skating only resonates in the national consciousness once every four years. Try telling someone like LeBron James or Tom Brady that the media spotlight on Chen is too harsh.
Which brings us back to last night. Chen failed, but his fans couldn’t accept that his failure is part of sports. Almost immediately on my Twitter feed, I saw an emerging narrative: It was the media’s fault. They over-hyped him. They put too much pressure on him. This media-blaming, of course, has become an almost reflexive tic of the American brain, it comes from both the left and right, and it’s certainly not limited to sports. Journalists are the scapegoats that can be blamed for everything (as if the state of the media is anything more than a reflection of the national appetite), and while I wouldn’t presume to absolve us of all guilt, I find it especially ridiculous when applied to figure skating.
Here are a few examples of the “poor Nathan” media-blaming from the last 24 hours:
There's many, many more, and you can see them here if you so desire. What's funny is that just a few days ago, some people were complaining that Chen didn't get enough attention because of our collective fascination with fellow skater Adam Rippon:
A few final thoughts:
1. Nathan Chen is not the first teenager to face intense Olympic pressure. There have been many before him, and many have succeeded.
2. Figure skating is a sport that comes with intense pressure, should an athlete make the Olympic games. It’s in the nature of the competition, and no athlete who partakes should expect anything but the brightest spotlight at the Olympic games. It’s hard to win a gold medal, and that’s as it should be.
3. Nathan Chen is a millionaire because of the media.
4. All the fools throwing blame around are only able to watch Nathan Chen, and form whatever relationship they think they have with him, because of the media.
5. Go Adam Rippon. And go Nathan Chen! May you exorcise all the demons in tonight’s free skate, and bring home gold in Beijing.