Sasha Cohen was the star of the figure-skating show Tuesday and the leader after the short program, but it was Irina Slutskaya, the Russian favorite, three hundredths of a point behind the American and six years older, who looked like the future of a sport that might actually be worth watching.
Slutskaya, more athlete than artiste, charged through her program as usual with a minimum of jazz hands and a maximum of powerful jumps and spins. She didn't skate her best, leaving the door open for Cohen, a sprite of a thing who's a traditionally dazzling skater.
Four years ago, when the figure-skating slimeballs were scuttling around, their sheltering rocks having been lifted by the pairs-skate judging controversy that's responsible for Canadian cuties David Pelletier and Jamie Sale having gainful employment with NBC in Turin, fellow Salonista Kerry Lauerman and I debated the future of figure skating in these pages.
"Without the judging controversies to argue about and the costumes to laugh at," I wrote, "figure skating's just another not-very-interesting competition, like ballroom dancing or a chili cookoff. You don't see NBC bidding billions to televise that sort of thing."
But the figure-skating honchos did fix the judging, and I have to say they did a good job. They've replaced a system that was poorly designed, patently unfair and ripe for corruption with one that's complicated and unwieldy, but at least theoretically sensible.
Apparently vexed for the better part of a century by the problem of making a scoring system that didn't anoint a handful of potential winners before the competition started, the honchos figured it out in about three days once the heat was on. I love those goofy honchos.
But what's important about the new judging scheme is that it puts a premium on the damnedest thing for this damnedest of all sports: athleticism.
The new system gives a set number of points for various elements, though there are still qualitative judgments. This encourages harder, more athletic jumps and spins. Even trying and failing a difficult trick will get a skater more points than looking pretty and interpreting the music in a way that pleases the judges, both trump cards in the old regime.
It's a cousin to college basketball's RPI rating, with its strength-of-schedule component. It's why American Kimmie Meisner appeared to be outskated by quite a few competitors, including fellow American Emily Hughes, but finished ahead of most of them, in fifth place. Meisner did harder stuff, landing a triple-triple, something most of the skaters didn't bother trying.
It's also why Susanna Poykio of Finland, a beautifully fluid skater with an unchallenging routine, finished 12th, back among several women who crashed to the ice and four spots behind Japan's Miki Ando, whose skating NBC commentator Dick Button called "second-rate" -- and that was before Ando bounced off the half boards.
This is all good. It nudges the split-personality sport of figure skating away from its bad-entertainment persona and toward its athletic side.
Also good is the new rule that allows female skaters to wear pants. Slutskaya wore a sequined jumpsuit, basically the kind of thing male figure skaters tend to wear. She looked powerful, muscular, dynamic.
The copious tape of Michelle Kwan practicing last week showed the world how vigorous and athletic female figure skaters look when they wear sports gear, a stark contrast to the weirdly sexualized baby dolls their traditional tiny-but-chaste costumes turn them into.
Slutskaya's outfit wasn't sports gear, but it was a step in the right direction. Next to her, Cohen looked faintly ridiculous in her get-up, with its vast expanses of flesh-colored nylon.
Even though she came to Turin as the favorite and I like to root for underdogs, I'm pulling for Slutskaya to outduel Cohen and the other contenders Thursday for the gold medal.
Then I can root for her competitors to follow her lead, away from the Vegas-lounge dark side and toward the light of athleticism, power and, by the way, tongue piercings, briefly visible during Slutskaya's post-skate interview on NBC and a nice contrast to figure skating's habitual prissiness.
The figure-skating honchos may have stumbled onto something here with this idea of turning their sport into a sport.
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MSNBC's post-race predictions [PERMALINK]
I don't envy the people who have to put together those entertainment shows on NBC's hench-networks where hosts set up coming events -- that is, completed events that are coming up on TV -- introduce features and conduct a few interviews.
They have to figure out a way for the talent to sound like they're bursting with anticipation about events that have already happened. It's weird, it's awkward and, though they don't lie about the event being completed already, it sometimes borders on the dishonest.
On MSNBC Tuesday, after the marquee 1,500-meter speed-skating final had ended, host Alison Stewart brought in MSNBC.com columnist Mike Celizic to handicap the race.
Handicap the race that had already been run, that is.
The only other thing that American viewers had been told about it -- and a lot of words had been spent on this race -- was that 500-meter winner Joey Cheek and Salt Lake City 1,500-meter champ Derek Parra were also entered, making it the first event in Winter Olympics history with four gold medalists from the same country competing.
So here's Stewart's introduction of Celizic:
"To discuss the athletes, their attitudes and the outcome of the big race -- don't worry, we won't tell you who won! We'll get to that part in a little bit; I'll make sure I give you enough warning -- Mike Celizic from MSNBC.com.
"Mike, OK, going into this race, who was the favorite, and then who was the underdog? Who's somebody under the radar we haven't been paying attention to?"
Celizic said Hedrick was the favorite, followed by Davis, and hey, listen, you know who you should really watch out for is the Italian skater, Enrico Fabris. "He's looking for a medal," Celizic said.
Nice post-race handicapping, there, Mike. I just couldn't wait to see how the Italian did.
And here's the crazy part of this story: Fabris won the race! Can you believe that? It's like Celizic had some kind of crystal ball and could see into the past.
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So long, Davis-Hedrick feud [PERMALINK]
Did you catch the press conference spat between Shani Davis and Chad Hedrick after the 1,500 meters?
Davis had beaten Hedrick for the silver medal by 0.09 seconds, with Hedrick taking the bronze and Enrico Fabris of Italy the gold, as MSNBC would later predict. And then the two Americans, who have feuded since the start of the Olympics over Davis' refusal to skate with Hedrick in the team pursuit, sniped at each other in front of the press.
Did you see it? And did you think, as I did, "Wow, this little battle sure has gotten uninteresting in a hurry"?
The substance of their disagreement -- is Davis selfish and unpatriotic or is Hedrick a self-aggrandizing attention whore hiding behind team-first bromides? -- was never as interesting as the simple fact that these two U.S. team members were at war with each other leading up to a showdown in the 1,500-meter race.
Now that that race is over and they won't compete against each other again, watching them argue via their answers to reporters' questions was about as exciting as watching two guys bickering about who got to a parking space first.
We're glad you fellows are really fast. Please use that skill now as you go away.
Previous column: Ice dancing, Lindsey Jacobellis
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