Golden girl

16-year-old Sarah Hughes, who looks like America's composite babysitter, shocks the figure-skating world -- and bails out the beleaguered Olympic judges.

By Gary Kamiya
Published February 22, 2002 1:00PM (EST)

If there is an Olympic Figure Skating Judges Image Rehabilitation Association, large toasts are being drunk there at this moment to Sarah Hughes. The 16-year-old from Great Neck, N.Y., performed such a monster program that even a judge under direct orders from Tony Soprano to get the fix in wouldn't have been able to throw this one.

At least, that seems true in retrospect. But at the conclusion of the free skate, another skating-judge train wreck looked alarmingly possible.

On the day when politically tinged outrage over various judging and official decisions boiled over, with Russian officials threatening to pull their team out of the Games and an enraged South Korea lodging a high-level protest over the short-track decision that took a gold medal from their skater and gave it to popular American Apolo Ohno, that would not have been a good thing.

As the marquee event of the Games approached, things were getting a tad ugly. Earlier on Thursday, Russian officials threatened to pull their team out of the rest of the Olympics, saying they had been "humiliated" and felt "greatly unappreciated" and accusing Olympic officials of engaging in a "witch hunt" against Russian athletes. The precipitating incident was the disqualification of the legendary cross-country skier Larissa Lazutina from a race for failing a blood test, but that was just the straw that broke the Russian bear's back: The Russians are also bitter about the second gold medal awarded to the Canadian pairs skaters, claim the officiating in their hockey game against the Czechs was fixed, and have accused International Olympic Committee officials of drawing too much blood from an athlete -- the latter a novel accusation that might have more credibility if it was directed against a Transylvanian.

But the most hurtful charge was made on Russian TV. According to a Chinese news service, an official -- after calling these "the dirtiest Games in history" -- said, "The organizers and IOC officials are acting in the favor of North American show business against the basic principles of the Olympic movement." It's kind of an insane charge, but when you think about it, too many hours in a hotel room watching our rah-rah-USA TV coverage, combined with the various judging controversies, could drive a delicate soul into full-blown Protocols of the Elders of NBC paranoia.

Hughes may have helped avert a second Cold War, and pulled off one of the great upsets in Olympic history, but she said she was just trying to have fun out there. Those of us who have been around the block a few more times than she might be inclined to smile and think, "Kid, you don't know what not having fun means." But that's probably selling her knowledge of herself, and what she needed to do to compete, short. The great thing about figure skating is that it's wrapped up in all this feminine foo-fooey stuff, and its athletes often look like little girls, and sometimes they are little girls -- but that's totally deceptive. Hughes looks like an archetypal $5-an-hour high school baby sitter -- sweet, giggly, spunky -- but in four minutes Thursday, she showed she has the poise of Joe Montana.

Hughes performed the routine of her life, nailing every jump from the easiest to the hardest, skating with energy and flow and just generally letting it rip. "I've never done that before!" you could hear her saying incredulously as she left the ice. But she had started the evening in fourth place, and if any of the three skaters ahead of her skated well, they would presumably beat her. And in anticipation of the climactic drama of that three-way competition, it was easy to push her stunning performance temporarily to the side.

But the climax never arrived.

First came the teen phenom who went into the long program in third place, the staggeringly gifted 17-year-old Sasha Cohen. Cohen can do things no other skater can do -- like a spin in which she rises up out of a crouch, revolving faster and faster while holding her leg almost vertically against her head. (I don't mean to complain, but it does seem unfair that some people's entire body is made out of knee cartilage, while others of us have so little.) But Cohen, performing for the first time on the world stage, fell on her toughest jump, the triple lutz-triple toe, and despite some stellar moves -- she has future champion written all over her absurdly perfect little doll-like face -- was out of the running for gold.

That brought up the sentimental favorite and longtime queen of American figure skating, Michelle Kwan, who started the evening leading by a small margin over the Russian champion, the unfortunately named Irina Slutskaya.

NBC and the rest of the media had been playing up every catchy story they could get their hands on about Kwan -- the fact that teeny-tiny Tara Lipinski beat her for silver in Nagano, the mysterious firing of her longtime coach, Frank Carroll -- and generally pounding the portentous can she do it, four minutes to redeem four years drum. (What TV does when it gets its large, moist hands on what it thinks is a Hot Story is not an exercise in subtlety.) The stories had become so overblown they almost started to backfire, like World Trade Center perma-patriotism. But in the end the drama was real: a great champion trying to win the ultimate prize, one snatched from her four years ago by a girl barely as big as one of those wooden "You Must be as Tall as Me to Ride the Ferris Wheel" clowns at an amusement park.

The crowd gave her a huge welcome, but as she later said, it just wasn't her night. Kwan skated gracefully, as always -- although the smiling-swan swept-back-arm move is getting old -- but disaster struck early: She couldn't complete the rotation and fell heavily on a triple jump. She gamely battled back -- you could hear her telling her father afterwards, "I didn't give up" -- but she lacked the athleticism to make up for that huge mistake.

That left the door wide open for the Russian champion, Slutskaya, the most powerful and athletic of all of the skaters, who also has a hydraulic grace all her own. (The double-spinning jumps she did in her warm-up room were more impressive to my ice-averse eye than her skating moves.) The way Slutskaya moved before her routine, muscling her way across the ice with a heavy, menacing, vaguely walking motion, contrasted sharply with Kwans's gliding style: It was a gunfighter against a ballerina. But Slutskaya, too, underwhelmed. She skated better than Kwan, but didn't do her trademark triple-triples and landed very awkwardly on a late jump. She never got into a commanding, one killer jump after the next rhythm that would have put the thing away.

What should the judges do? It would have left a sour taste in everyone's mouth -- or at least anyone who wanted a gold that really glittered -- to give the top spot on the podium to Kwan, or even to the worthier Slutskaya. They simply didn't deserve it. I suppose in the long history of the Games there must have been skating finals in which the winner skated poorly but won because everyone else skated even worse, but the sport has too much of an artistic component in it for such an outcome to be satisfying. In that now-famous 1,000-meter short track race last week, an Australian won the gold simply because everyone in front of him fell down in a heap. That's OK in that Wild West event, and no one should begrudge Steven Bradbury his happy destiny, a lifetime of free Victoria's Bitter in Sydney pubs. But figure skating is different. These ladies are supposed to be queens of elegance and athleticism, not staggering vultures chowing down on the carcasses of their rivals.

Moreover, the rage of the Russians, with its unpleasant Cold War associations, and the increasingly nasty Ohno-Kim controversy, which has led to widespread anger in South Korea and accusations of home-field favoritism, would inevitably have been exacerbated by a decision giving the gold to Kwan over Slutskaya. If Kwan won, there would always have been suspicion that her victory was tainted, a kind of Career Achievement Oscar. A Slutskaya victory would have been less politically radioactive, but just as deflating.

But that didn't happen. Slutskaya's marks were announced, and they were higher than Kwan's -- the only way that Hughes could win the gold. It came down to a Finnish judge who gave Hughes higher artistic marks than Slutskaya. The Russian skater was angry at the result, but later composed herself. Hughes was sitting with her coach when she realized she had won: She fell onto the floor, squealing and shrieking in amazement. The girl who as a 5-year-old had said in a home movie, "I want to go to the Olympics and win a gold medal. I can't wait for that to happen" didn't have to wait anymore.

It's nice to think that Hughes has a whole lifetime ahead of her to enjoy what she's done. It's a thought that should age like a fine wine -- and that bottle never goes dry.

As for Michelle Kwan, who comported herself on the medal stand and in a post-skate interview with her usual dignity, watching her face brought to mind something we don't often think about: how to make friends with failure.

Kwan will doubtless hurt for a while. But one hopes that before long, the Olympics, which for so many years had been the target at which her life has been aimed, will simply flip themselves over and reveal themselves to be merely a bauble, a game for children -- but one that inspired years of dedication and striving, qualities that endure. One hopes that her failure to win the highest award, on this one day of thousands in her life, will acquire no metaphorical significance, will not become a mythical totem.

It would be unrealistic to hope that Kwan, and all the athletes who have not won any medals at these Games, regret nothing. But one is permitted to hope that the regrets will fade. And that the colors they dreamed would hang around their neck, gold and silver and bronze, will shine through their lives.

Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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Figure Skating Olympics