Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Miracle on Ice, Part II?

Women's figure skating has been one of the marquee events in the Winter Olympics for a long time, but it has seldom had the emotional impact that it has this year.

That was clear last night during the short program competition. But, if you missed it, it should be even more evident — as well as more emotional — tomorrow night, when the women perform their long programs and medals are awarded.

Surely, on that night, viewers will once again hear the story of how Canadian skater Joannie Rochette's mother died of a heart attack shortly after arriving in Vancouver for the Olympic Games. And they will see video of Rochette's astonishing, virtually flawless performance in the short program that vaulted her into third place.

Her strength in these competitions, though, is the long program, and it is for that reason that many observers, especially her fellow Canadians, are hopeful that she will overtake the leader, South Korea's Kim Yu–Na, and/or Mao Asada of Japan, who is currently in second place.

Whether she will remains to be seen. But, barring an unexpected collapse by Rochette or one of the other two, those three are likely to be the ones who receive the medals in women's figure skating. No doubt Rochette would like to win the gold in her mother's memory. But any medal will suffice, I'm sure. The sight of it will always be a reminder of what she lost, but it will also be a reminder of what she accomplished in spite of heart–breaking tragedy.

Four years ago, in Italy, the top Olympians from America probably were speed skater Apolo Ohno and figure skater Sasha Cohen.

Ohno captured gold, but Cohen took silver — disappointing, perhaps, to Americans who were conditioned to believe that America's female figure skaters always would prevail.

In some ways, it is hard to understand why that belief persisted into the 21st century. Perhaps it was a hangover from 1968, when Peggy Fleming won the gold medal. She wasn't the first American to do that, but she was the first after television had become a fixture in most American homes. So Americans like Tenley Albright (1956 gold medalist) and Carol Heiss (1960 gold medalist) were forgotten in the euphoria that was brought on by Fleming's victory.

In due course, Fleming herself took a backseat to the woman who became "America's Sweetheart" eight years later — Dorothy Hamill. With her dazzling smile and distinctive hairstyle, Hamill captured hearts as well as the gold medal ...

... perhaps setting the stage for impossibly high expectations that went unfulfilled for more than 15 years — until Kristi Yamaguchi took the gold medal in 1992.

Two years later, the Winter Olympics were held again after the decision had been made to hold the Summer and Winter Olympics in diferent years. Once again, Americans expected one of their own to win the gold medal, and attention was focused on the battle between Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan. But Kerrigan won the silver and Harding, who was implicated in the plot to attack Kerrigan at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, finished eighth.

I must admit that I always felt the Harding–Kerrigan competition, which led to the infamous assault on Kerrigan the month before the Games, was an indication of the folly of America's provincialism. Kerrigan was attacked by a friend of Harding's ex–husband, but their logic reflected the attitude of most Americans. The winner at the Olympics would be one of the Americans. It was that sense of entitlement.

Perhaps, if she had not been attacked, Kerrigan would have won the gold. But we'll never know if her performance was affected. Anyway, she was said, at the time, to have recovered quickly from her injuries.

It was also said at the time that Kerrigan's performance at the 1994 Games was the best of her career. Yet she finished second to Oksana Baiul of the Ukraine.

Tara Lipinski was the next American to win a gold medal in figure skating, earning a narrow victory over Michelle Kwan at the 1998 Olympics in Japan. She was succeeded by American Sarah Hughes in 2002. So, in spite of Cohen's silver medal in 2006, Lipinski and Hughes restored the aura of American dominance of the sport.

It will be interesting to see what happens this year. But it seems clear to me that, barring a truly unforeseen development, "The Star–Spangled Banner" will not be played for the women's figure skating medalists in 2010.

No comments: