Ladies' night

By Jon Jackson

Originally published on Advocate.com February 22 2006 1:00 AM ET

After a week and
a half of disappointing results, spills, upsets, and low
network ratings for the Winter Olympics, figure
skating’s “ladies” took to the
ice Tuesday night at the Palavela Arena in Torino, Italy.
Billed as the winter games’ premier event, the
ladies’ short program lived up to the hype.

Initially, I
thought the men’s event, with its depth and talent,
would outshine the other figure skating disciplines.
Last Thursday’s evening of skating proved my
theory wrong when the men skated like lifeless rag
dolls, two-footing landings and falling to the ice. Although
it was rare to hear any criticism out of the NBC
announcing team, particularly from International
Skating Union cheerleader Tracy Wilson, many blame the
ISU’s new judging system for draining the programs of
any originality and style; even gold medalist Yevgeny
Plushenko was monotonous and lackluster.

On the contrary,
the ice dance, sandwiched between the men’s and
ladies’ programs, proved to be the most
dramatic event in ages. Ice dance is usually known for
its plunging necklines (on both the women and the men).
On Sunday night it was known for its plunging couplets, as
team after team flopped and mopped up the ice. The
original dance event provided one of the most
memorable Olympic moments in years, along with reels and
reels of highlight videos for the postgame shows,
particularly Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien.

The Italian team
of Barbara Fusar-Poli and Maurizio Margaglio
miraculously found themselves in first place after the
compulsory dance. Not that they skated badly, but one
would not be surprised to find a few excessively
generous judges with perhaps a large rucksack of laundered
euros hiding on the judges’ stand. The leaders took
the ice on Sunday to a huge hometown welcome. Near the
end of their program, the team suddenly stumbled,
tumbling to the ice and ending all hope for an Italian
medal. After finishing quickly, Barbara collected
herself and then, in true diva-like fashion, stood in
the middle of the arena with piercing eyes that shot
icicles toward Maurizio, letting him know exactly just whose
fault this entire mess was. She dressed Maurizio down in no
uncertain terms, providing a needed villainess to this
otherwise lofty and pretentious event. Figure skating
and soap opera fans alike were stunned to see the
glare in Barbara’s eyes. At that moment we all knew
exactly why Maurizio had dropped her in the first
place!

But back to
ladies’ night. Thanks to Team USA’s vibrant
and talented Sasha, Kimmie, and Emily as well as
numerous other graceful and athletic competitors
giving chase, Tuesday night provided even more fantastic
entertainment and drama without the sideshow of falls,
bumbles, and glares.

That athletic
American youngster, 16-year-old Kimmie Meissner, skated a
clean technical program, landing the most difficult
combination jump of the evening, a triple
lutz–triple toe loop. The judges awarded Kimmie
great technical scores but dinged her for her presentation.
Kimmie has already made a name for herself as a
jumper. At last year’s National Championships
in Portland, Ore., Kimmie landed the difficult triple axel
jump, a feat not completed by an American woman since Tonya
Harding. She is planning to include that jump in
Thursday night’s freeskating program, and if
she lands it, she could land herself on the podium.

Canada’s
Joannie Rochette put one over on the typically uptight and
aged blue-haired judging panel, skating to a classical
remix of Madonna’s early-’90s hit
“Like a Prayer.” The judges, having no clue
about the song’s origins, simply appreciated a
new tune that they otherwise would have found
distasteful. Joannie’s elegant white costume was
consistent with the classic program. However, an
unfortunate touchdown on her triple flip jump put her
into ninth place and likely out of medal contention.

Elene
Gedevanishvili, a Georgian of the nonpeach variety, skated
out in a huge Spanish black and red outfit, perhaps
out of fear of being mistaken for a munchkin. Despite
her petite size, she nailed the only other
triple-triple combination of the evening and proved that her
talent is much larger than her frame. She provided
explosive jumps, quick footwork, and great spins, and
the only element lacking from her enjoyable program
was perhaps the maturity of some of the more experienced
skaters. Still, she ended the evening with a
respectable sixth-place finish.

America’s
little sister, Emily Hughes, the last girl to Torino, looked
sophisticated in a lovely, elegant royal blue,
silver-trimmed dress with a sheer back and sleeves.
Emily filled well the shoes of Michelle Kwan, who
withdrew just days ago because of a persistent groin injury.
Emily also filled the heavy skates of her older
sister, gold medalist Sarah Hughes. Giggling all the
way back to the Olympic Village, Emily did herself and
America proud after skating a clean, elegant program.

The athletic
Russian Irina Slutskaya skated next. The apparent victim of
an Olympic Village paintball fight, Irina sported a young
boy’s navy blue suit covered in sparkly
fireworks, with an exploding starburst strategically
placed right on her tush. This outfit demonstrated a sense
of class and style that always seems to be just out of reach
for Slutskaya. While her technique is beyond reproach,
she rarely finds her shot-putter’s figure in
the beautiful, elegant, and graceful positions of her
longtime rivals Sasha Cohen or Michelle Kwan. Despite her
typically telegraphed jumps, she is still the odds-on
favorite to win—we’ve been hearing that
for months now—which usually counts for more than a
well-executed triple axel with the international judging
panel. This alone explains her second-place finish.

Japan’s
Shizuka Arakawa, a former world champion, saved a lot of
face by proving Japan could still be in medal
contention at these games with a stellar technical
program. Amazing spins, solid jumps, and bewildering
spiral positions placed her solidly in third, with some of
the top scores of the night.

Shizuka’s
teammate Fumie Suguri, looking like a delicate porcelain
doll, proved she was anything but fragile. The careful
and precise movement of her body draws in the avid and
astute skating fan. Having lulled spectators with her
softness, she then throws in the unexpected powerful
and strong jumps. Fumie is within striking distance of a
medal in fourth place.

Sasha Cohen can
be summed up in two words: absolute perfection. I’ve
watched Sasha skate for years, and this was by far the best
she’s ever performed. No other
“lady” even came close. At the ripe old age of
22, Sasha called herself the grandma of the American
team. This comment was the best explanation for her
unattractive costume, as she apparently felt the need
to dress the part. With everything else so perfect, what was
she thinking? I’ve seen prettier camper
curtains! Yet with Sasha’s nearly perfectly
performed program, one hardly noticed. With her sheer
brilliance in presentation and choreography, Sasha was the
gem of the evening.

The most
astounding part about Tuesday’s final result was how
close Slutskaya’s score is to
Sasha’s—a mere three hundredths of a point.
Sasha outskated Irina by leaps, spins, and bounds. So
why, then, did the judges “prop up” the
Russian? The judges seem to be up to something. Again.

It might have
gone unnoticed by most that the Olympic judges gave
America’s Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto an
outrageously low fourth-place finish in the free dance
Monday night (not to mention the unsupportable
sixth-place finish in the compulsory dance) in an attempt
to keep them off the podium. Fortunately, because of great
skating that most of the judges could not overlook,
some funny math, and possibly a lucky random draw,
they hung on to silver by the skin of their
two-tenths-of-a-point teeth. Might these sneaky judges be up
to their same old tricks with America’s Sasha
Cohen? Tune in Thursday night to find out.