Thursday, February 19, 1997
Gold is Kwan's to lose

BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

kwan
Michelle Kwan scored first with eight of nine judges in the short program.
(AP photo)
| ZOOM |
NAGANO, Japan - Figure skating is not fixed. Not entirely. Tara Lipinski might still beat Michelle Kwan. If she could fly.

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Otherwise, the Olympic ladies competition is pretty much over, and was even before Wednesday night's short program. If Kwan stays on her feet Friday night, she will win the gold medal. If she should stumble only once, she still wins the gold medal. If Lipinski skates brilliantly, she is nonetheless slotted for silver.

In this sport, it is not always what you do, but when you are due.

Tara Lipinski is the reigning world champion, but the prevailing sentiment in her sport has been that the 15-year-old phenom was only keeping the throne warm until the 17-year-old Kwan could regain her form following the rigors of puberty. Now that Kwan is back near the top of her game, the natural order of the two Americans has been restored.

It was fairly obvious Wednesday that Lipinski can not win unless Kwan pulls a Debi Thomas, and implodes under Olympic pressure. Lipinski's best is simply not seen as good enough.

The short program Lipinski skated Wednesday night at the White Ring arena was more technically demanding than Kwan's - her jumps more difficult, her speed more accelerated - and she finished the two-minute and 40-second program without a major glitch.

''It felt great,'' she said. ''I think this is the best short program I have done in a long time. I felt like I wanted to cry. . . . I proved to everyone that I can handle the pressure. It is so exciting to go out and feel like you skated the best you could.''

''Every element she did,'' said Lipinski's coach, Richard Callaghan, ''was her best element of the year.''

Yet when her marks were tallied, only one judge thought Lipinski superior to Kwan, and in only one respect. France's Anne Hardy Thomas gave Lipinski a 5.7 for technical merit, compared with Kwan's 5.6. All nine judges gave Kwan a 5.9 for presentation. Lockstep lives.

Reasonable people can often reach the same conclusions independently, but figure skating judges customarily move in blocs. They prefer coronations to competitions, the scripted to the spontaneous, the seasoned campaigner to the spectacular upstart.

They are the reason why we sometimes have trouble seeing skating as a real sport.

More than almost any other field of endeavor, sports is a meritocracy. The basic premise of any athletic competition is that all athletes start evenly, and the best results should be rewarded.

Figure skating is slightly more subjective, and inherently absurd. It is a fundamentally aesthetic activity that presumes to be quantifiable. It is art appreciation for accountants. It is what a statistician might do with a sunrise.

Each skater is assigned one mark for technical merit, which is supposed to reflect the performance of eight required elements (short program) or optional jumps, spins and footwork (free skate). Every move is ranked for relative difficulty and every error carries a range of possible deductions.

That said, presentation marks are the tie-breaker in the long program, and the long program counts for two-thirds of the total score for individual skaters. If the judges prefer a particular competitor - or their music, or their costume or their country - they have plenty of latitude to overlook their performance. Happens all the time.

''For me, when I go to skate, I don't think about placement at that time,'' Lipinski said. ''Once you are out there, you start thinking about your music, about doing it for the people you love and especially for yourself.''

What you think of the judges, you keep to yourself.

Columnist Tim Sullivan is covering the XVIII Winter Olympic Games for the Enquirer.

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