THE women's figure skating event, always one of the prime attractions of any Winter Olympics, has taken on the weight of almost incomprehensible human drama.
On the raw emotional level it is Nancy vs. Tonya, the battle that needs no introduction for anyone who has seen a TV or read a newspaper in the past month. More on that in a moment.
On another level, it shapes up as a real horse race among the deepest field of contestants ever.
Katarina Witt, who won her second gold medal for East Germany in 1988, has come out of Olympic retirement. Despite possessing a champion's aura, her prospects of joining Norway's Sonja Henie as a three-time Olympic ice queen appear slim.
There simply are too many other women prepared to dazzle with a full arsenal of triple jumps, not the artistic Witt's strong suit. Her younger rivals, including the three medalists from last year's world championships - Ukraine's Oksana Baiul, France's Surya Bonaly, and China's Lu Chen - would practically have to do en masse pratfalls to open the door to the German star.
The largest TV audience in Olympic history is expected for Friday night's free-skating program, which accounts for two-thirds of a skater's score. But the curtain opens tonight, and anyone who misses the technical programs risks missing the kind of skating technical knockouts that characterized the men's event, won by dark horse Russian Aleksei Urmanov.
The women, however, only have to perform one triple jump in their short programs, which means the field could enter Friday's high-stakes finale tightly bunched.
At press time, Tonya Harding was still scheduled to take a run at her lifetime dream - a gold medal - but a tender ankle left some doubts about her ability to participate.
Although only a long-shot for the gold, and not even a leading medal prospect, she has been at the center of the ``Skategate'' controversy that has threatened to swallow up the athletic story line of the women's competition. This, of course, is the stranger-than-fiction episode that has linked Harding to an attack on rival Nancy Kerrigan at a Detroit practice the US figure skating championships last month. A hurriedly published paperback about Kerrigan's life, which hit the book stalls here even before Harding landed in Lillehammer, recounts the story.
In Kerrigan's one major press conference in Lillehammer, she and coach Evy Scotvold divulged an interesting change in Kerrigan's training habits. In the past, she said, she had been reluctant to do a complete run-through of her long program. ``I used to be afraid ... I would get tired and not do it perfectly,'' Kerrigan said. Since she learned the folly of such piecemeal practice, she has switched to doing double and triple run-throughs, which have increased her confidence and endurance.
Harding's life has also seemed to consist of barriers - barriers of coming from the wrong side of the figure skating tracks, of having a rough home life and a failed marriage, and barriers of her own making. On a few recent occasions she has confessed to being ashamed and embarrassed by her behavior. The Olympics, some say, may mark the end of the trail for her high-level figure skating. A career as a featured professional seems doubtful.
Millions will watch to see whether Nancy and Tonya can maintain their composure. The competition is stacked with too many aces to let them slide easily into the thick of Friday night's Olympic hardware chase. They must skate well from the beginning. If neither does, the US just might be shut out of Olympic figure skating medals for the first time since 1908.