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Ladies' night

Ladies' night

Leonard Cohen

Despite a few tacky costumes, the ladies' short program was a vision of elegance, avoiding the sideshow spectacle of this year's other skating events

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.

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