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Skating is a real sport

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Sigh. Yes, Virginia, figure skating is a sport.

I know, I know. There are sequins on the costumes, short skirts on the ladies and more routines choreographed to movie themes than you can three-turn or twizzle to.

But do tune in come February and see what I mean. Or better yet, buy a ticket if you can afford the Salt Lake City Olympics' marquee event. It might just make a believer out of you.

The skaters have prepared two programs, which combined take up about seven minutes of ice time; that's not including the ice dancers, who must compete in three events. No big deal, right? Wrong, according to American Timothy Goebel, who once told the Deseret News that he could easily put in an hour on the Stairmaster, in addition to running on the treadmill, lifting weights and his regular practice sessions, but that it did not compare to the strain of one four-minute program.

That said, figure skating continues to skirt around the edges of sport legitimacy, unaided by the glut of made-for-television "competitions," shows and the clubbing heard around the world. Who can forget Nancy Kerrigan's wailing "Why me?" after she was boxed in the knee prior to the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics? Or the disappointing parade of professionals allowed to compete that same year?

This year, knock on wood, there likely will be no knee-whackings, no locker room brawls or trash-talking. This year promises to be one heckuva skating competition.

All of the 1998 Olympic gold medalists are gone, having moved on to the entertainment side of things. Gone are ladies champion Tara Lipinski of the United States and all the powerhouse Russians: Ilia Kulik in the men's event, Oksana Kazakova and Artur Dmitriev in pairs, and Oksana Grishuk and Evgeny Platov in ice dance.

This year's group of medal contenders includes some veterans but also a good many new faces. Michelle Kwan, already a legend in her own right, will make another go for the gold. As will fellow 1998 silver medalists Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze of Russia and Elvis Stojko of Canada, and the bronze medal-winning dance team of Marina Anissina and Gwendal Peizerat of France.

But joining them will be an impressive cadre of newcomers: Jamie Sale and David Pelletier, the luscious pairs team from Canada; Evgeny Plushenko, the cocky Russian über-jumper; Sarah Hughes, the up-and-coming American, and her countryman, Timothy Goebel. All have come on like gangbusters since the last Olympics and represent both the present threat and bright future of figure skating.

The Salt Lake Olympics also will feature many firsts.

For the first time, quadruple jumps will be the benchmark in the men's event. So far, only three men — Plushenko and Alexei Yagudin of Russian, and Goebel — have demonstrated they have the quad, the consistency and the choreography; not coincidentally, they are also medal favorites.

For the first time, a Chinese pair may win an Olympic medal. Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao have amazing technical abilities. Their throw jumps are breathtaking. However, the team has struggled to earn the judges' favor on the artistic mark, which may open up room for Americans Kyoko Ina and John Zimmerman. Ina and Zimmerman have performed more consistently this season, and with added difficulty in their programs, may be the first Americans to medal at the Games since Jill Watson and Peter Oppegard in 1988.

If the stars align, the Salt Lake Games also may mark the first time in a decade that a woman will attempt a triple Axel. Japan's Yoshie Onda has been trying the jump all season, finally landing one in practice at the ISU Grand Prix Final in December. If she makes the Olympic team, she may try it here as well.

And if Italian ice dancers Barbara Fusar-Poli and Maurizio Margaglio can recover from their recent disappointment at the Grand Prix Final (a stunning fourth-place finish), they may be the first skaters in history to medal at the Winter Games.

But that's a lot of "ifs." And if there's anything definite about the Olympics, it's that there are always surprises. So turn on the set, settle into your seat and enjoy the ride. Wherever it takes you.


The ladies:

Unless you've been hiding under a rock all season, you already know the primary players: Michelle Kwan and Sarah Hughes of the United States, and Irina Slutskaya of Russia. Judges have fiddled with the placings all season, most recently handing Slutskaya a victory at the International Skating Union's Grand Prix Final.

But it's really anyone's game — especially if you're Kwan or Slutskaya. Judges have been reticent to hand victories to Hughes on her own merits; to date, she has relied on errors from the other two to win.

This year, Kwan and Slutskaya have proved they can be beaten. And no one knows better than Kwan that young guns can still hit their mark, after her loss to then-15-year-old Tara Lipinski at the 1998 Nagano Olympics.

Deseret News graphicDNews graphicFigure skatingRequires Adobe Acrobat.

But at the end of the day, Kwan has won five national titles, four world championships, an Olympic silver medal and a hearty reputation among international judges. So, though her skating may not be what it used to be, she remains America's favorite for an Olympic medal. She showed at the Grand Prix Final that she still has the goods, breathing some life into what had been a drab "Sheherazade" program. Her eyes flashed that competitive fire again, and had she not fallen in the final seconds, she may have won.

As it happened, Slutskaya prevailed, winning her third consecutive Grand Prix title. However, she conceded then her performances were far from perfect and that it would take a lot more to win Olympic gold.

Enter Sarah Hughes, the 16-year-old from Great Neck, N.Y., who has climbed her way up the sport's ladder two rungs at a time the past two years. With a win over Slutskaya and Kwan at Skate Canada in November and her second consecutive world bronze medal, Hughes has emerged as a legitimate threat.

The men:

Barring extraordinary events, a Russian will win the men's event. But will it be Evgeny Plushenko, the high-flying, cocky 19-year-old from St. Petersburg, or will 21-year-old Alexei Yagudin's superior artistry and spellbinding programs win the judges' votes?

Americans Timothy Goebel and Todd Eldredge also factor into the mix, most likely as bronze medal candidates. Goebel has made impressive progress on the artistic side of skating, and with his already-stunning arsenal of quad jumps, he is a strong contender. Eldredge, on the other hand, needs to strengthen his quad jump in order to have a legitimate shot at a medal. But, the 30-year-old, five-time U.S. champion has said his only goal is to perform well, medals or no. And in Eldredge's case, that might just be true. If so, audiences may see him skate a clean, quad-free program that likely will be short of a medal but go a long way to erase the disappointment Eldredge felt after a poor showing in Nagano.

The pairs:

This competition has the potential to be among the Games' most memorable. The top two teams — Sale/Pelletier of Canada and Berezhnaya/Sikharulidze of Russia — both have stunning programs to present and very different strengths. The Canadians rely very much on their remarkable ability to connect with audiences; to draw spectators into their real-life romance. The Russians offer near-perfection in every line they skate, every body position and toe point. They personify elegance in pairs skating.

Ice dancing:

Once so predictable one would be tempted to think the results were tallied ahead of time, the sport of ice dancing was turned on its head at the Grand Prix Final last month when reigning world champions Barbara Fusar-Poli and Maurizio Margaglio of Italy finished an astonishing fourth. The Olympic competition will go a long way to show whether the Grand Prix results were an aberration or the beginning of meaningful change in the way the sport is judged.

E-mail: jnii@desnews.com