Newsreal: Dream girls

America's women figure skaters carry us to a place far, far away. That's why we watch them go through puberty on national television.

Published January 14, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

With the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, just three weeks away, America's best hopes for glory rest on the delicate shoulders of three young women -- figure skaters Michelle Kwan, 17, Tara Lipinski, 15, and Nicole Bobek, 20. They placed first, second and third respectively at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Philadelphia last weekend, and some sports commentators suggest that they could sweep the figure skating medals in Nagano -- a feat never before achieved in a single Winter Olympics event.

The excitement surrounding these athletes is spurred by more than the prospect of Olympic success. Figure skating has become one of America's most popular spectator sports, commanding huge television audiences, lucrative endorsements and fame for its star performers. It also engenders personal rivalries whose ferocity can stand in sharp contrast to the fluid beauty of the sport. Some 45 million households -- the sixth largest TV audience ever -- tuned in to watch Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan battle each other at the 1994 Winter Olympics after the latter was clubbed on the knee by associates of Harding. This year, according to the media, the rivalry to watch is between Kwan and Lipinski -- a contest that is expected to make the women's figure skating competition the most watched event of the entire games.

Christine Brennan, a former sports writer for the Washington Post, takes a close look at the competitive world of Kwan and Lipinski in her forthcoming "Edge of Glory: The Quest for Figure Skating's Olympic Gold Medals" (Scribner). Brennan also wrote the bestselling "Inside Edge: A Revealing Journey into the Secret World of Figure Skating," and will be talking with Salon during the Nagano games.

Just how popular is figure skating today?

In terms of TV ratings, figure skating is No. 2, behind NFL football. Just to give you an example of how popular it is -- in the women's finals at the U.S. National Championships in 1995, when Nicole Bobek beat Michelle Kwan, more people watched that on television than the NBA All-Star Game, which was played the next day.

How do you account for this enormous appeal?

There's a couple of reasons. One is the sheer beauty and grace of the sport. It goes right to the core of the dreams of women and girls. It carries them to a place far, far away. It's the music, the gorgeous costumes that appeal so much; it's a little bit of dress-up on the ice. And that's 51 percent of the population right there.

And for the guys?

For the men who watch -- and there are many -- figure skating is raw, pure sport. There is no sport that has a more non-negotiable moment of decision than figure skating. Football has a fourth down. In basketball, you get a second free throw. In tennis, you get a second serve. In baseball you get a third strike. In figure skating, when Brian Boitano took off from the ice in Norway in 1994 to go into his triple axel combination jump, he was the gold medal favorite. One second later, when he came crashing down to the ice, falling and stumbling, it was over. Gone. There's no other sport where an entire career can be wrapped up in just one second on the ice. That's what keeps you on the edge of your seat and that's what helps explain the ratings. Dramatically, it's good stuff.

Now everyone is looking to Michelle Kwan, Tara Lipinski and Nicole Bobek for the drama in Nagano. How do you think they'll do?

Let's be clear on something. On the U.S. women's team, there's one legend, and that is Michelle Kwan. Then there are two other good skaters. It's very, very, important to make that distinction. The media has built up this rivalry between Michelle and Tara Lipinski. There is no such rivalry. The rivalry is Michelle vs. Michelle. She may be the greatest skater who has ever lived. Last weekend in Philadelphia, she performed a set of programs greater than anyone in the history of the sport in the United States, male or female. No one has ever had two performances like that back-to-back. Ever. Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill, Dick Button, Brian Boitano, Scott Hamilton -- no one. If Michelle Kwan skates at the Olympics the way she did in Philadelphia, her name will never be forgotten by sports fans. She will join the legends of the sport.

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What made her programs so exceptional?

First of all, they were skated to very difficult music. She chose two piano pieces by Rachmaninov for her short program, and "Lyra Angelica" by William Allwin performed by the London Philharmonic for her long program. No one has ever skated to these pieces before. The music was much more intricate than, say, a movie soundtrack or a Broadway show tune, and therefore much more difficult to skate to. Second, she was perfect in her jumps and her spins. And she did all that with a fractured toe! She's like Michael Jordan on skates. One of the Philadelphia judges, who's never given a perfect 6.0 score in his life -- and he's been judging for 25 years -- gave Michelle Kwan two. He told me it was the greatest thing he had ever seen, that she brought tears to his eyes.

Yet last year, it was Lipinski who grabbed the glory at the World Championships and Kwan who fell.

Last year, Michelle's body was changing -- we're watching girls go through puberty on national television -- and she had some trouble dealing with that. Those mistakes created Tara. Tara walked through the door, but it was Michelle who opened the door. This year, Tara doesn't seem to have the pizazz and the spark. She's grown a little bit, but she's still tiny. She doesn't have the presence. That's not her fault, but it makes you wonder whether last year should have happened for her. If it hadn't happened, maybe she'd just be moving up nicely. But now she's being scrutinized so much, and Michelle has come roaring back.

You think Lipinski is in over her head?

She's still a very good skater. And given the volatile nature of this sport, if Michelle falls in the short program in Nagano, then Tara could win the gold medal. But only if Michelle makes a mistake. If she skates clean in the short and long programs, she's the gold medalist. You can take that to the bank. In a way her loss last year was the best thing that ever could have happened to her. It fired her up incredibly. It forced her to think, to change things, to look at herself in a different way, and clearly she's come back stronger than ever.

How does the third woman on the U.S. team, Nicole Bobek, rate?

She's the ultimate showgirl on ice, the All-American blond bombshell. In Philadelphia, she looked great. Artistically, I believe she's better than Lipinski. If she had trained properly and not moved from coach to coach -- she's had 10 so far -- she could have been the greatest figure skater in the world. She's got the looks, the ability. But she didn't train. She's the opposite of Michelle Kwan and Tara Lipinski, both of whom are dedicated workhorses. Nicole Bobek? Hey, a couple of cigarettes, hang out with the guys. This is her life. So the training isn't there, and now she runs out of gas in the last half of her long program. Also the technical difficulty of her jumps is nowhere near those of Michelle and Tara, and I don't think she can get them at this point. Still, if Nicole gets her act together between now and the Olympics, she could take a silver. With Bobek, you just don't know. She could be great, or she could finish 10th.

There's talk of a U.S. sweep of the women's figure skating medals. How likely is that?

There's always a chance, but I think in general international judges would prefer not to see three U.S. flags hoisted up in the international arena in Nagano. All things being equal, I think they'd like to see someone else get in there. The most likely person who could sneak in is Tanya Sheshenko of Germany, who is very good. But I can't see her winning the gold, and if Tara is on, Tara should win the silver. So at this point I would say it's Sheshenko and Bobek fighting it out for the bronze.

How much personal rivalry exists between Kwan and Lipinski, and how much is media hype?

The rivalry -- if there is one at all -- is purely a one-way affair. Michelle doesn't even think about Tara. She's on another wavelength. She's thinking about her place in history. Tara, however, is obsessed by Michelle.

Speaking of rivalry, whatever happened to Tonya Harding?

The last I heard of her, she was living with some family, unemployed, no money. She had her truck repossessed. She got kidnapped a year ago by some bushy-haired man, although we're not quite sure whether that was real or not. She got away, but of course the police never found him. And the kidnapping just happened to occur the same week as the U.S. National Figure Skating Championships. What a coincidence. This is why I love this sport so. It just doesn't get any better -- from the ridiculous Tonya to the sublime Michelle Kwan. There's nothing like this sport. Nothing like it at all.

By Jonathan Broder

Jonathan Broder is Salon's Washington correspondent.

MORE FROM Jonathan Broder

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Figure Skating Olympics Winter Olympics