Chance to restore the exquisite

After judging scandal, women skate tonight for the Games' jewel

Elegance took a beating in the first 12 days of the Winter Olympics. The Games have given the world unprecedented speed, American gusto, aerial freak shows, tearful martyrs, and attack-dog sideshows surrounding corrupt judging and hockey pucks.

Art and beauty somewhere got waylaid. The most acidic critics of the Olympics have noisily argued, in fact, that figure skating has always been an imposter as the Games' spotlight act.

But don't tell that to the watching millions who are transported by it. And tonight the prima donnas of world figure skating, headed by Americans Michelle Kwan, Sasha Cohen, and Sarah Hughes plus the usual but absorbing Russian enigma, Irina Slutskaya, face each other for the jewel of the Winter Olympics. And because there is enough athletic poetry and acceptable ego among them to ignite any audience, elegance is not likely to go out with a whimper tonight.

And at the end of the night, it may relieve the Games from their daily turmoil and their generally bumptious character.

That character was evident on another rink, as hockey bangers ended their meaningless exhibition games and eliminations began. To nobody's surprise, flag-waving American coach Herb Brooks joyously plopped himself into the middle of things after hearing that the coach of the underdog Germans preferred to face the Americans in the quarterfinals.

Herbie responded as though the Germans had called Betsy Ross, who sewed the first American flag, a bag lady from Boston. Brooks said he was drawing a line in the sand, "and maybe that's why they lost the Second World War." In the field of diplomacy, this didn't quite reach the memorable levels of George W. Bush's "axis of evil," but it did provoke squirmings in the august offices of the American Olympic Committee.

It probably wasn't the reason the Germans lost the war. But Brooks never claimed to be a historian. He might also have lost sight of the scoreboard showing the Germans leading Olympic medal count.

IRONIC, then, that after all of the fuming over crooked scoring in figure skating, it may be women's figure skating that restores something exquisite to the Olympics. The Games have had their heroics and a compelling mix of personalities, but a flash of style at this point would not noticeably damage the product.

This, then, may be the hour when Michelle Kwan sheds her puzzling reputation as the queen-in-waiting who can't lift herself to glory when the gold is there for the taking. She is, after all, still only 21 years old although she leaves most of the prime-time public with the impression that she is some kind of dowager of figure skating. The choke-up reputation is odd, because she's had only one prior chance in the Olympics, in Nagano when Tara Lipinski entranced the judges and juiced the audiences with her energy and leaps. Kwan shriveled as an also-ran despite her competence.

Competence normally is not enough at the highest level of figure skating. In the final round tonight, not only the silken skaters but also the judges will share the pressure and the scrutiny. After the uproar of the pairs competition, the people who do the scoring have become suspects as much as judges. If the short program was an indicator, tonight's scoring is going to be laborious and tight.

A few days ago Sasha Cohen's coach, John Nicks, said he had a vision. Nicks is a man with an expressive face that always seems to reflect a kind of honorable exhaustion and the mark of battle. Part of that may be his struggle to cope with the relentless exuberance and ambition of his star pupil, Sasha, who at 17 has a legitimate shot at becoming the Olympic champion. In the short program she skated with a relaxed confidence and command, a doll on ice. It lifted her past Sarah Hughes, seen until now as Kwan's primary home-grown threat. "I have a picture," Nicks had said. "I have a picture in my mind of the three American ladies and the three Russian ladies in the final group on the final night in what will be a classic confrontation.... We should win at least two medals."

Kwan, Cohen, and Hughes are there. So are Slutskaya and Maria Butyrskaya of the Russians. The third Russian, Viktoria Volchkova, wrecked her program with a missed jump. Butyrskaya skated marginally. Slutskaya, mischievous, dynamic, powerfully athletic, and inconsistent, was certainly a match for Kwan on Tuesday, coming in a close second. But Kwan stirred the house. American audiences desperately want her to win, and in the last part of her program, skating to Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto (the Russians are everywhere in skating), she was flawless, beautiful, and on the verge of winning. Now we will see.

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