Early on last night, as 16-year-old Elene Gedevanishvili of Georgia zoomed full-speed toward the NBC camera, then leapt in the air to pull off a killer triple-lutz, double-toe-loop combo, the utter insanity of this sport came home to me. Flipping upside down on a 4-inch beam is one thing, but jumping on a metal blade about 0.125 inches wide while skating backward on ice requires commitment, perhaps to a mental asylum.
Welcome to figure skating: the perfect sport for Winter Olympic rubberneckers. It's got vicarious thrills (the triple-triple combination few of the ladies pulled off last night), spills (the Ukrainian skater's awkward fall), chills (well, ice), and bad, bad costumes. "That's just hideous," my boyfriend exclaimed when Sasha Cohen came on the ice, dressed in what looked like Joseph's Many-Colored Coat, or a small portion of it, at least. (Later we learned that she was supposed to be a sexy gypsy.)
Gymnastics and figure skating are the most popular sports of their respective games because they amp up—and prolong—the viewer's anxiety, while making it possible to absorb a hodge-podge of knowledge about the sport. Both contain artistic and athletic elements that it's possible to discern on television; unlike skiing or snowboarding, there's plenty of time to identify the moves and enjoy the artistry. And, of course, the occasional artlessness.
Unlike last week's boosterish halfpipe commentators—who were content to ooh and aah over landings that looked pretty wobbly—NBC's figure skating team takes an approach that's more reminiscent of Simon Cowell. In fact, my favorite thing about the women's short program might have been Scott Hamilton and Dick Button's good-cop/bad-cop routine—or, really, just Dick Button's bad-cop routine.
Button, who took home Olympic gold in 1948 and 1952, brings an old-school steeliness to his blunt pronouncements. Hamilton and fellow commentator Sandra Bezic deal in so much breathless mush—which I confess I like, rather the way one likes pudding—but Button is an unrelenting taskmaster, complaining repeatedly of "corkscrew" and "curlicue" landings that seemed undetectable not only to the lay audience but to Hamilton and Bezic. As a point of comparison, here's Hamilton's commentary on little Elene— remember, this is a 16 year old who weighs 84 pounds and skates beautifully, with true expressiveness: "She's been great to watch in practice, because she works so hard. … And she is also so star-struck, so glad to be on the ice with Irina Slutskaya and Sasha Cohen." Button was less enthusiastic. During a stunning-looking spin, he pronounced sternly, "That really isn't a layback." Of an earlier competitor, he huffed, "That layback certainly is not top rate—at all."
At first his dour pessimism got me down. What's the Olympics without a little empathy, the kind Hamilton and Bezic dole out in gobs? But, as the event continued and the skating got better, I saw what Button was holding out for. Because, of course, last night was one of those rare Olympic evenings when the stars came through, and performed. For once there were three utterly winning Americans—tiny Kimmie Meissner; Emily Hughes, baby sister of Sarah; and Sasha Cohen, the neurotic perfectionist whom laidback snowboarder Shaun White has the hots for. (Let's hope there's a made-for-TV movie in the works.)
But the hero of the night may have been the top Russian: the 27-year-old dynamo Irina Slutskaya. Perhaps to stave off the inevitable jokes about her name, Slutskaya elected to be the first female figure skater in the Olympics to wear pants rather than the traditional flippy skirt. (The rules were changed earlier this year. How permissive figure skating has become!) Whatever the case, she skated with the power of a rocket booster, and, in her star-spangled catsuit, seemed ready to propel herself right into the sky. She's not the most graceful skater around—Sasha Cohen or the Japanese Shizuka Arakawa win that label—but she's really, really fast. You can't help thinking she could knock the socks off some of those dippy male skaters. Meanwhile, hers was the most compelling back story; her mother is very sick with kidney disease, and Slutskaya herself fell ill and was diagnosed with a mysterious heart condition in 2003, which led her to acknowledge last night, in broken English, "This life don't end in figure skating." Her style is utterly different than the Russian gymnast Svetlana Khorkina, whom I admired during the summer Olympics for her outrageously lanky grace. But like Khorkina she's got an eccentric persona (did you catch her determined grimaces before she went on the ice?) that's rewarding to encounter in a sea of prepackaged athleticism. Reportedly, when doctors diagnosing her condition told her that her heart was enlarged, she replied, "Of course. I am a sportsman."
Meanwhile, on the American front, Emily Hughes, outclassed by the superstars, managed not to fall as she power-stroked her way through a very adequate program, wearing lucky blue and a dash of lip gloss. And NBC couldn't have ordered up a better finale for the evening: Sasha Cohen, who has been known to have "confidence problems"—illustrated beautifully by NBC with clips of her most spectacular wipeouts—skated last. Having fallen in the 2002 Winter Olympics, blowing her shot at a medal, she had to stare down Slutskaya and Arakawa's chart-topping scores. It wasn't a confidence-inspiring situation, but she skated with a determined grace, perfect makeup, and a dash of diva-flirtation, winking and power-pumping her arms after her jumps. (Plus, was it me, or was she the only one who didn't look like she was doing something gynecological during her spiral leg extension?) The result was a performance that won even crusty Dick Button's heart. After a particularly complicated move that involved turning 180 degrees before jumping, Button exclaimed happily, "Look at the turn with foot there, that's exceedingly dangerous!" As the accolades rushed in, a taken-aback Sandra Bezic offered the most telling one: "Even Dick Button just said, 'Wow!' "