It is the most-watched sport of the Olympic Winter Games.
It sells the most tickets at the highest prices, attracts the most television viewers and draws the biggest crowds.
To say that there is pressure on the Salt Lake Olympic Organizing Committee to get it right come Games time is an understatement, especially given the smashing time spectators had at the Sydney Games, and the bevy of criticism the committee has already faced about the proposed Olympic figure-skating venue.
Enter the Four Continents Figure Skating Championships, held Feb. 7-10 at the Delta Center. The official "test event" for skating prior to the 2002 Games, Four Continents will be held exactly one year from the start of the Games and will help SLOC test everything from ice consistency to high-tech data transmission.
And, organizers hope, the event will allow SLOC to tackle its biggest sport-related criticism yet: the decision to hold the Games' hottest event at a makeshift venue.
Storm clouds first gathered at the 1999 U.S. Figure Skating Championships held in Salt Lake City. In order to accommodate Olympic-size ice, several rows of Delta Center seats had to be removed nearest the ice. With terraced seating, that left the first row of spectator seats 15 feet above the ice surface and several feet back.
Spectators complained the seating configuration limited their ability to see the skaters. At the same time, athletes complained it felt like they were "skating in a cave," because they often could not see the audience during their programs.
Though video boards were brought in to resolve the sightline restrictions, many of the top skaters requested they be turned off because they were distracted. Others commented they caught themselves watching the video screens during their programs.
SLOC President Mitt Romney conceded the sightline issue will likely never be perfectly resolved, but said the Four Continents event will help organizers get a feel for how SLOC's proposed remedies will help compensate for the venue's weakness.
He also jabbed at the sport's international governing body, placing the responsibility for the venue decision squarely on the shoulders of the International Skating Union, not SLOC.
"The selection of the Delta Center was made by the international skating federation," he said. "Our strong recommendation was to choose the E Center instead. We argued, we cajoled, we tried to convince, but were unsuccessful. In the end they wanted the Delta Center. It was not our choice."
Interestingly, ISU President Ottavio Cinquanta this month told the Associated Press he was "embarrassed" by the unresolved sightline problems, and disappointed that assurances he believed SLOC had made never reached fruition.
"When the ISU said OK for Salt Lake City, the project was that for the ice surface to put at a higher level," he said. "If they have changed it, this is not the responsibility of the ISU."
And in a chilly statement issued Thursday, the ISU directly challenged Romney's assertions about its involvement in choosing the venue.
"It must be emphasized that the ISU is responsible for providing what are commonly recognized requirements to permit the adequate conduct of the competitions, i.e. the skaters, judges; officials; rules and other procedures relevant to the competition," the statement read. "The ISU is not involved and therefore not responsible for organizational matters such as accommodating the public spectators. It is on these grounds that the ISU firmly declines both the direct and indirect responsibility for aspects that are not under its authority."
Forced to keep the Delta Center as the figure skating venue with the Games just a year away, Romney said organizers considered raising the level of the ice as much as 12 feet to bring the athletes closer to spectators. But, computer simulations indicated raising the ice would not solve the problem. Rather, Romney said, it could have created another set of problems — tests showed the possibility the ice would become unstable, and even crack.
So SLOC opted for the tried method, again bringing in video boards. This time, however, Romney said the large screens will replace the current scoreboard mounted at the center of the arena, high above the ice surface to minimize distraction to the athletes.
Ticketbuyers were fairly warned, he said, and every ticket to the Olympic figure-skating events has been sold. And even with Cinquanta's latest tirade, Romney said SLOC could not switch venues if it wanted to.
"All of our seats have been sold, so people understand the restrictions of the venue," Romney said. "There's not much more we can do. We're well beyond being able to change facilities at this time."
Let the countdown begin.