As women take the ice, will Games get a lift?

Last week, "American Idol" drew more than twice as many television viewers in the United States as the Winter Olympics. Tuesday night, the Games will respond with their own night of "American Idol," as the women's figure skaters at last make their debut in an Olympics desperately in need of them.

There have been plenty of inspired performances during the past 10 days - some of them by Americans - but few that have been inspiring stateside. No Tommy Moe, schussing to a gold out of the clear blue nowhere. No world records on a speed-skating oval apparently made of flypaper. In other words, precious little drama.

In an Olympics where the most common American theme has been an inability to stay upright, pinning too much hope on figure skating - where calamity teeters on the breadth of a skate blade - is a dangerous prospect. Then again, Olympic figure skating hasn't been just about landing axels and salchows since the days before Dick Button. It is sport as theater, complete with its own cast of characters and costumes shimmering in the stage lights. And in this Olympics in particular, America could use a little bit of Broadway.

"The ladies' championship is the marquee event of the Winter Olympic Games," said commentator and former Olympian Scott Hamilton during a teleconference to promote the event. "It is the ultimate reality television."

With the departure of Michelle Kwan, the task of brightening the Games will probably fall to Sasha Cohen. So far she has taken up the role with the air of an accomplished understudy. Figure skating is perhaps the only sport that could warrant a gossip column, and Cohen has helped ratchet up the intrigue.

First, she had fled the prying eyes of Turin to practice at a private ice rink in a tiny Alpine hamlet. Then, she moved to an undisclosed location apparently known only to her coaches and the Central Intelligence Agency.

To be sure, Cohen plays the part of leading lady quite differently than Kwan did. Kwan was all ease and amiability. Even on the ice, her expressiveness invited the audience to share every ecstatic pass across the ice. Cohen is cool and a little aloof, and her skating has that same balletic quality of almost impossible beauty.

Indeed, since the day she arrived on the skating scene, the world has held its breath, waiting for the moment when the power of her jumping and the purity of her form would come together to mark her dominance. The world is still waiting.

In the past two World Championships, she has improved to finish second - higher than Kwan, but hardly the limit of her ability. It was not until the US trials in January, when she posted the highest score by a woman under the new judging system, that Cohen put together a strong short program and free skate.

With Kwan absent from the event, however, the result was almost a formality. Whether Cohen can reproduce the same form this week is the great unknown of these Games. Cohen is hopeful: "When you don't win, you learn the lessons that make you a better skater."

She can also draw hope from the fact that the field appears somewhat less imposing than it did in 2002, when Cohen finished fourth.

As world champion and the most consistent performer, Irina Slutskaya is the clear favorite. Beyond her, though, Cohen's competition is difficult to pin down. Italy's Carolina Kostner will enjoy the support of the home crowd, and the three members of the Japanese team are capable of medaling - though perhaps the best Japanese skater isn't even here. Mao Asada, arguably the best skater in the world this season, falls 87 days short of the Olympics' age limit: A skater must be 15 years old by July 1 of an Olympic year.

Among the Americans, Kimmie Meissner and Emily Hughes come in with even lower expectations than did Sarah Hughes, who emerged from the ranks of the overlooked to win gold in Salt Lake. Sarah Hughes, at least, had a bronze medal at the World Championships to her credit.

While Meissner lacks that résumé, she has the spring-loaded legs of a grasshopper, and would seem to be the most likely to reprise the role of American scene-stealer in Turin.

Emily Hughes, meanwhile, has her sister's name, and, she says, a blue dress. Despite the sensation of her arrival - reclaiming the spot that Kwan had taken from her through an injury exemption - Hughes would appear to be the longest of long shots. Then again, sometimes that is the place to be in figure skating.

With 36 total medals, individual figure skating is America's best single event in the Winter Olympics, and three times in the past four Games, American women have taken two-thirds of the medals. With that, comes expectation, and the past two Games - with Hughes and Tara Lipinski - show that sometimes the best skaters on Olympic ice are those with the least to lose.

Mentally, "it is the most brutal sport - it is the most subjective," says Shane Murphy, a former United States Olympic Committee sports psychologist. "It's remarkable that they are so young, but in some ways, it protects them."

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