Why women's figure skating has US fans hooked

For many Americans, the Winter Games to this point have been a prelude. Tonight, there will be no rifleman on skis, no big rocks and brooms. Tonight, no last names will be needed: Michelle, Sarah, and Sasha will suffice.

Women's figure skating is the marquee event of these Games. So it has been in the United States since Peggy Fleming first won America's hearts and Dorothy Hamill became the head that launched 1,000 haircuts. Yet it is a curious obsession for a nation that, by and large, can't tell a loop from a Lutz.

The affection is nothing so technical. Rather, the sport's allure stems from its blend of the artistic with athleticism, from America's history of unparalleled success, and - perhaps more than both of these - from fascination with an ever-evolving soap opera on ice.

Every sport has its drama, but few, if any, can offer such melodrama. This is not a sport of helmet-headed warriors plowing down poles or slick-suited racers with thighs bigger than Christmas hams. These women are at once approachable and ideal - scared high schoolers in sequins who tread the line between inspiration and humiliation on the edge of a skate blade.

For decades, figure skating has captivated America through its personalities, rivalries, and raw emotion - the only sport imaginable that could have a "kiss and cry area." Its heroes have been America's heroes, and the winner of this event - to be contested tonight and Thursday - is likely to become more a part of American Olympic lore than any other athlete here.

"Every time we have a champion, that's a kick to the flywheel," says Ben Wright, former head of the United States Figure Skating Association.

And there have been many. As the Dutch excel at speed skating, the Finns at jumping, and the Norwegians at cross-country skiing, America has ruled women's figure skating - and that's part of the appeal. While the United States has lagged behind on traditional Winter Games events, its women figure skaters have almost always done well.

The original skating star

With 17 medals in the event, the US has nearly three times as many as second-place Austria, and its six golds are double what any other nation has. But among the medals, one stands out. Peggy Fleming's gold in the 1968 Games - the first broadcast in color - is seen by many as the first step toward America's love affair with women's figure skating.

Kathryn Johnson remembers it. Some 34 years later, it's one reason she's shivering in the cold outside the Salt Lake Ice Center in hopes of finding extra tickets to the sold-out ice dancing program. "I've always loved women's figure skating because it's always been the featured event on TV, ever since Peggy Fleming," says Ms. Johnson, who says she looks forward to tonight's event more than any other.

Yet, like most Americans, there's something more to her love of figure skating than simply national pride. There is an emotional connection - particularly among women. Skating revues such as Champions on Ice routinely play before sold-out stadiums, with 70 percent of the tickets going to women. As recently as 1998, figure skating was the second-most-watched sport on TV, behind only football.

Half sport, half performance art, figure skating inhabits a unique niche in the sports landscape. Since the 1800s, it has been choreographed and set to music, making the presentation of the program as important as the steps and jumps themselves. It also provides one kind of feminine ideal, packing grace and strength into a miniskirt and a pair of size 6 skates. It's "romantic to have a woman out there being so athletic," says fan Johnson.

'Pro wrestling for women'?

It also makes for great theater.

Michelle Kwan fires her coach months before the Olympics and turns her life into "As the World Turns." Sasha Cohen nearly sideswipes Kwan in practice at the national championships; rumors of a simmering feud arise.

For many, it's all a part of the allure. One columnist even called figure skating pro wrestling for women - the plots, the personalities, the intrigue. The sport's most famous hour came during the 1994 Olympics, when Nancy Kerrigan skated against Tonya Harding, whose husband was accused of masterminding a plan to injure Kerrigan. The final was the fourth-highest-rated TV program in US history.

Last week, this fascination surfaced again, threatening to swallow the Olympics, when judges originally awarded the gold in the pairs competition to the Russians, not the crowd-favorite Canadians. Says Wright: "People are really attracted to the scandals."

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