A federation doesn’t “own” its athletes
Morgan Matthews and Kaitlyn Weaver have many things in common. They are both American born ice dancers who create a striking image on the ice: tall, blonde, with long lines. At one point both of their careers took them through Texas. The two women competed internally for the United States and also produced great results nationally. In 2006, both ladies brought home pewter medals from the U.S. Championships.
But when Matthews’ and Weaver’s respective partnerships in the U.S. dissolved, and the two women paired up with male dancers from Canada, only Weaver was granted an immediate release to skate for Canada by United States Figure Skating.
Why did this happen? And, more importantly, was the denial of Matthews’ release justified?
For all the similarities between Matthews and Weaver, the main difference between the two was that Matthews was a more elite skater who had done extremely well on the international stage. Perhaps this influenced USFS’ decision. This isn’t fair. A skater’s past success shouldn’t make it harder for them to be released, and USFS shouldn’t have the ability to keep any athlete from representing another country if the skater so chooses.
Fans sometimes complain that because a country has financially contributed to a skater’s career, the skater is obligated to skate for that country. This argument is weak for three reasons.
One, while skaters competing at Matthews’ level do receive funding from USFS to help with their training expenses, the amount given to a skater isn’t nearly enough to cover the tremendous amount of money spent by an athlete on their career. A federation shouldn’t be able to hold an athlete after funding only a portion of their career, and at Matthews’ level, most athletes are paying for the majority of their careers out of pocket. Many athletes can go into debt because of this.
Two, even if a federation did pay for a skater’s entire career, money does not buy the federation the right to “own” the skater. Let’s say, theoretically, that USFS had paid for every penny of Matthews’ training starting from the day that she first hit the ice as a child. Even then, it was Matthews’ blood, sweat, and tears that went into her career with her previous partner, Maxim Zavozin. Any training money, while helping her, didn’t pay for her hard work and the results she and Zavozin achieved.
I sometimes like to think of federations like parents. They love, nurture, and help to financially support their skaters. Their skaters would not be able to achieve the success that they do without the federation’s support team. This team includes judges who critique their programs, team leaders, team doctors, and everyone working behind the scenes.
Parents have a similar relationship with their children. They love and nurture them. They pay for everything in their child’s life, and a child would not physically exist without their parents. Still, a parent cannot force their child to hold a particular job, live in a set location, or marry a certain person. In a similar way, a federation, while providing a lot of the support for a skater’s success, cannot deny a skater a release, dictate where they should train or whom they should skate with.
Along with this, the funding that had been invested into Matthews’ career by USFS had already produced a return on the basis of her results. She and Zavozin were former world junior champions and had medaled at various other international competitions, which helped USFS by boosting the federation’s standings internationally. The idea that this funding was used as collateral for Matthews is unjust.
It was suggested to Matthews that if she were to pay back all the funding that she had ever received by the federation, she might be given an immediate release like Weaver‘s. It should be noted that while Weaver also received funding from USFS, she was not asked to pay any of it back. The idea that one skater would have to pay back this money and not another is grossly unfair. The money that was given to Matthews had helped her to achieve many successes for USFS. Had she known that she would have been presented with this predicament, she might not have accepted the funding in the first place.
The International Skating Union has made it very clear that they want to increase the number of pairs and dance partnerships. To aid skaters who decide to switch countries for a promising partnership, like Matthews and Weaver, the ISU has ruled that pairs and dancers only have to sit out one calendar year before they are able to compete on behalf of their new country. These rules are different than those pertaining to singles skaters, which state that a competitor has to sit out up to two seasons. However, if countries don’t release their skaters the ISU’s accommodating ruling has no impact on a skater’s career.
The main reason behind the ISU’s flexibility of the rules towards couple skaters is that it is very hard for a skater who competes in either pairs or ice dancing to find a good partner. There just aren’t that many skaters who flock to these disciplines. It was incredibly fortunate for Matthews that after she and Zavozin broke up, she quickly found a partner who matched her abilities, whom she enjoyed skating with, and whom she appeared to have a promising future with. Had USFS released her, she and her new partner, Leif Gislason, would have been able to begin competing internationally for Canada the following season.
Partnerships and skating should be a free market, and federations need to keep the bigger picture in mind. If a skater like Matthews were released to Canada and were able to produce strong results for them, they could create more competition on the ice dancing stage internationally and could raise the bar for other dancers. If ice dancing were to become more competitive and exciting, it would also garner more television coverage and inspire a new generation of skaters who might consider taking up the sport. In the end, increasingly ice dancing’s popularity would help all federations.
Matthews and Gislason went on to skate for the United States a year after Matthews was denied her release. They competed nationally for a season, but the pair broke up last year.
“Being denied release was very trying on our partnership. We knew that it would be impossible to compete in the upcoming Olympics and possibly the following Olympics as well,” says Matthews about their split. It is much more difficult to obtain citizenship in the United States as opposed to Canada. For this reason, the pair was facing a career devoid of Olympic glory.
Although Weaver expressed initial concerns about how she would be received as an American skating for Canada, she has been welcomed warmly by fans and the Canadian federation.
“I came to Canada to find my perfect partner,“ she explains. “Other skaters have gone away from their home as well. I don’t think a skater should be criticized if they have to move. I consider myself very lucky that out of all of the skaters in the world, my perfect partner was in Canada, and I found him.“
She and Poje won the bronze medal at Canada‘s national championships and competed at the world championships during their first season together. Weaver obtained her Canadian citizenship a few months ago, and the pair have a shot of competing in Vancouver this year. Matthews, on the other hand, is back to square one.
While Matthews is still involved in the sport has and recently paired up with a new partner (who is an American citizen), many have been left to wonder what could have become of Matthews’ career had she been released to Canada. There is no denying that all of the conflicts that she and Gislason faced early on in their partnership had a negative impact on the pair and played a role in the demise of their partnership. The possibilities of what they could have achieved had Matthews been treated as fairly as Weaver are endless.
USFS needs to rethink how their protocol and how they handle the careers of some of their athletes. Holding on to Matthews didn’t benefit her as a skater, and penalizing skaters who have garnered a lot of success is just not fair.
Thankfully, the troubles Matthews has gone through during the past few years haven’t broken her spirit. She doesn’t hold a grudge against USFS, and she is excited about her future in the sport.
“I have a passion for figure skating that has never wavered,” she told me. “Figure skating is really tough. You have to love it even when nothing is going your way.”