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Sasha settles for

Sasha settles for


Finito! Now that the figure skating competition is over, our Olympics correspondent tallies up the medals and dissects the tragic flaws in last night's ladies free skate program

Japan's Shizuka Arakawa (pictured, center), the 2004 World Champion, skated to a gold medal in Thursday night's ladies free skating program. She wasn't the odds-on favorite to win this event, though maybe she should have been. Irina Slutskaya (pictured, far right) made two mistakes in her free program, skating after Sasha Cohen (pictured, far left) had made two mistakes of her own. Arakawa skated cleanly, albeit to a technically toned-down program, and still walked away golden. Cohen recovered from her opening mistakes to take the silver; Slutskaya the bronze.

The ironies in the outcome are quite interesting. Japan's best hope for its first-ever gold medal in women's figure skating wasn't in Turin. Mao Asada, the only skater to beat Slutskaya this year, was too young to compete in the Olympic Games. The ever-omnipotent International Skating Union determined that it would be too physically strenuous for such a young lady, all of 15 years old, to compete in Turin. Its concerns, however, did not stop them from exploiting her talents during last fall's Grand Prix Series. She waltzed away with the title.

Arakawa is actually Japan's second-best skater. Well, make that Japan's third-best skater. She finished with the bronze in last year's Japanese National Championships, having been bested by Fumie Suguri as well. Certainly no one expected Arakawa to rise like a Phoenix from the ashes to become the best in the world, and certainly not at the Olympic Games. At 24 and with the last three consecutive Olympic gold medalists still in their teens, no one was taking her seriously.

The odds-on favorite to win Thursday night was the once-frail Slutskaya. She had the Russian establishment behind her, and she is easily the sport's strongest jumper. Russia had a plan for these Olympics, and it was working like a well-oiled machine. The new judging system was proving to be magical for these Russian figure skaters, itself an irony: Russia was one of the very few nations that had the courage to tell ISU president Ottavio Cinquanta that his new system was not good for the sport. They even bravely voted against it. For the record, the United States and Canada not only voted for it, they have remained its most ardent pom-pom girls, stopping just short of holding a parade in its honor.

The Russian formula was quite simple: 1. Show up at the Olympics with the best technical skaters; 2. Waste little or no time on silly choreography, expression, or presentation. Russians ignoring the artistic side of figure skating? Blasphemy! Yet they did just that. With all the focus on this "magical" new system being placed on the technical side of the sport, Irina brought her brilliant technical game to the Olympics, as did her fellow Russian teammates: Yevgeny Plushenko, 2006 Olympic men's champion; Tatyana Totmiyanina and Maxim Marinin, 2006 Olympic pairs champions; and Tatyana Navka and Roman Kostomarov, 2006 Olympic ice dance champions.

As of Monday night, with three of the four figure skating gold medals tightly in hand and a spin-doctored chance for a first-ever Russian sweep of the figure-skating golds, one might have considered making a Wayne Gretzky-sized bet on little Slutskaya. One might have lost one's sequin-covered shirt.

So what went wrong? Two words: Sasha Cohen. The Russian plan was to skate technically precisely without regard to presentation or expression. Even the artistic master Plushenko left his charisma and charm back in St. Petersburg instead banking on technical superiority. Same for Totmiyanina and Marinin, who skated a rather staid and boring free skate to win their gold. And so too for Slutskaya, at least for the short program. Calling the action for NBC, Sandra Bezic described Slutskaya's short program best when she called the performance "completely lacking in artistry."

Sasha Cohen, by placing first in Tuesday night's short program, shattered the Russian formula. She actually beat Slutskaya, but not in the technical marks. Sasha beat Slutskaya with her amazing artistry. The Russians--in theory, thanks to their formula--believed this could not happen. By skating her best game, Cohen proved for a moment that artistry could still win under the new judging system.

Slutskaya suddenly doubted the Russian game plan, then she doubted herself. It was written all over her face while she skated her long program Thursday night. With a gratuitous smile here, a batting of lashes at the judges there, Slutskaya tried with all she had to express her program, something she obviously had not ever practiced until that moment. For over 30 seconds she even seemed to have forgotten the program she was supposed to skate. By thinking about the artistry she completely lost focus. She varied from the Russian formula for these 2006 Olympic Games, and she paid dearly for it, falling on an easy triple loop jump and doubling a triple flip. In the end, there was nothing left for her but the bronze medal.

The irony? Had she stuck to the Russian formula, she would have won. The Russians were correct after all: Artistry is no longer necessary to win an Olympic gold medal in figure skating. Had Slutskaya stayed focused on her superior jumping ability--ignoring the audience, the judges, and Sasha Cohen--she would have won the gold. There would have been nothing that the third-best Japanese Shizuka Arakawa could have done about it.

Michelle Kwan, who was not in Turin, is the hands-down best figure skater of the last decade. She has never won the coveted Olympic gold medal. Her main rival and good friend, Slutskaya, now ends her career without one as well. They each own two Olympic medals; one silver, one bronze. The ultimate irony? Russia has a gazillion gold medals in the pairs, ice dance, and men's categories, yet they have never won a gold medal in ladies figure skating. The only gold medal they didn't get in Turin was the one they wanted most. For Mother Russia, that is the irony that hurts.

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