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Olympic Petition Fairness

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2004 Olympic gymnastics gold medalist Paul Hamm has broken a bone in his right hand, and will have to miss the Olympic trials next month and hopefully petition his way onto the Olympic team. This situation is calling up comparisons to both Michelle Kwan's and Nancy Kerrigan's successful petitions onto the Olympic figure skating teams, in 2006 and 1994, respectively.

Gwen Knapp, of the San Francisco Chronicle
, argues that Hamm and U.S.A. Gymnastics will have to deal with "leftover heat" from Kwan's petition and subsequent withdrawal from the games. Kwan petitioned herself onto the Olympic team for the 2006 Winter Games in Torino because she could not compete due to a groin injury. She was selected for the team, and re-injured herself shortly after the Opening Ceremonies. She was replaced by Nationals bronze medalist Emily Hughes, sister of 2002 Olympic gold medalist Sarah Hughes.

I didn't realize there was "leftover heat" from Kwan's situation, although many, including Sports Illustrated's E.M. Swift, argued that Kwan shouldn't have been let on the team at all:

Strained groins are notoriously slow to heal and easily re-injured, which is exactly what happened to Kwan when she attempted a triple flip 15 minutes into her first Turin practice.

While the late addition of Hughes -- who finished third at Nationals but was bumped to make room for Kwan -- might be viewed as a wrong righted, it is still a wrong and reflects badly on the USFSA and its petition process. Hughes has been given short shrift in what should have been the experience of a lifetime, missing the thrill of marching in Opening Ceremonies, of being able to spend the entire three weeks in the Olympic Village, of having the free time to see other Olympic events. Now she has to contend with hurried travel plans and a late adjustment to jet lag. Skaters do best when they're calm and relaxed, and whatever Hughes' Olympic experience might prove to be, it definitely won't be one that's relaxed.

Obviously, the whole situation was ironic, since Nancy Kerrigan petitioned for what would have been Kwan's spot after the 1994 attack kept her out of nationals that year.

Knapp essentially argues that it's not fair to penalize USA Gymnastics for the failure of the Kwan situation. I suppose I would agree, since they are obviously two different sports and every situation is different. Knapp's column quotes USA Gymnastics President Steve Penny emphasizing the team aspect of Olympic gymnastics as a reason that more athletes must be considered than just the highest-scoring at the trials (for example, one athlete may be a floor exercise specialist, while another is superb at bars, etc.). Knapp calls the Kwan situation a disaster, but I can't tell if she is definitely completely against the idea of petitions, and she does deem Kerrigan " the most defensible injury exemption of the bunch."

Knapp also brings up the discrepancy between sports judged by humans and other sports. For example, she points out that if swimmer Michael Phelps were injured and could not compete at trials, there would be no way for him to petition his way onto the Olympic team.

These are all interesting points, as is Swift's charge that "in granting Kwan's petition the USFSA forgot its most fundamental charge: To promote fair competition and to treat all its athletes equally." I do wonder about the fairness of the petition process whenever it comes up - but then how can you argue against the Kerrigan petition? And Kwan was still near the top of her sport in 2006. Although I didn't think she had a chance at the gold unless other skaters faltered, she could definitely have challenged for the silver or bronze. Add to that all that Kwan has given to the sport over the years, (vs. the alternative of a skater with limited international experience) and it's not hard to see why the committee made the choice to grant Kwan's petition. However, I think Kerrigan and Kwan were very special cases, and I'm not sure how quick the selection committee would be to grant a similar waiver to another skater. By taking Kwan's history and Kerrigan's circumstances into consideration, does that mean the process itself is inherently unfair? I don't know.