A smackdown in sequins
By Chris McKendry
Page 2 columnist

Skeleton, luge, snowboarding ... according to the promotions, the Salt Lake City Olympic Games are for the 18- to 35-year-old male.

Michelle Kwan
Michelle Kwan is The Rock of figure skating.
Yeah, right.

Fellas, you are in the midst of two weeks of prime-time figure skating. Yes, by the time the Games end, there will have been 375 hours of coverage on the Peacock family of networks. But the mothership, NBC, will air every single skating event. The women in your house will have a GI Joe Kung Fu grip on the remote. By the time Michelle Kwan wins the gold medal on Feb. 21, you will have established a kiss-and-cry area in the corner of your own personal hell, a place that used to be your living room.

The men I work with don't understand my interest in skating. They wonder how I can care about a "sport" in which the winners are determined by judges, most of whom seem to be blind or crooks, or both.

The man I live with hates it. One Sunday, while I was watching a skating exhibition, my husband peered over his newspaper long enough to mumble, "Jon-Benets on skates!" Then he picked up a DVD and headed for the basement. He cannot understand why teenagers wear barely-there dresses made of faux see-through material cut to their navels, covered only by sequins. I don't understand it, either. But that's the difference. I don't try to understand it. I simply accept it.

I love figure skating. But then, I'm a girl. A girl, who 25 years ago, was completely convinced that she was put on this Earth to be Dorothy Hamill Junior.

As I explained in a previous column, working with men has given me a unique perspective on the difference between the sexes. I add this to my list ... figure skating is wrestling for females. It's a soap opera with music, costumes, jumps and spins. The athleticism is to be admired, the storylines are to be gobbled up like a guilty pleasure.

Men, if you take the same approach to watching skating as you do toward WWF Smackdown or Raw, you will survive these Olympics. Remember, win or lose, the fun is watching how they play the games and live their lives. So long as you don't take your enjoyment to your local bar and ask the bartender to turn on the skating, you can remain a closeted skating fan.

Triple H
That's Triple H, not to be confused with a triple lutz.
Figure skating has four events: singles for men, singles for women, ice dancing and pairs skating. The most popular event by a landslide is the ladies singles competition.

In a language men understand, here's what they need to know about the ladies competition:

First, the personalities
Michelle Kwan. She is "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, with the popularity and following of The Rock. Short of Mario Lemiuex, Kwan is arguably the most famous athlete in these Games. A national and world champion many times over, Kwan has never won Olympic gold. Like The Rock, being the most popular hasn't kept her from losing a few bouts. The Rock lost the undisputed championship to Chris Jericho. Kwan lost the 1998 Olympics in Nagano to Tara Lipinski. Like Stone Cold, Kwan's been around the longest, has few allegences and seemingly does whatever she wants. She fired her choreographer and coach a few months ago, causing a buzz throughout the skating world. Although these moves were wildly unpopular and tarnished her reputation, Kwan is still the gold medal favorite.

Sasha Cohen. The tiny teen from Southern California is a mixture of The Undertaker and Triple H (Hunter Hearst Helmsley). She has perfect technique, guts and would crush someone with a folding chair, if that's what it took to win. Like Triple H, Cohen missed last season with a major injury -- a stress fracture in her back. She is intent on proving that she belongs back among the elite. As wrestlers should around The Undertaker, other skaters are wise to watch their backs during warmups with Cohen. She stole the show at the U.S. Nationals in January and finished second to Kwan.

Sarah Hughes
Bubbly newcomer Sarah Hughes, 16, has a bright future and already is a medal threat.
Sarah Hughes. The youngest U.S. skater is an all-American MTV kid from Long Island, N.Y. Her first big win came this year at Skate Canada. Sarah is on par with Maven or Kurt Angle. She has good looks, personality, a solid build and technique. Hughes burst on the scene last year at 15. She will own the scene someday. But for now, the veterans and judges are going to keep her in place. The buzz is that Hughes flutzes (translation: she cheats on her jumps). It's like Maven vs. Jericho. She can battle all she wants, but the script dictates that Hughes will come up just short this round.

Maria Butyrskaya. She's the old Russian who posed for Playboy. I'm tempted to say her WWF counterpart is Jerry Lawler. But that's just mean. Think Diamond Dallas Page. Enough already. Almost 30 years old now, she's had an interesting career. Cut loose by her coach at 15, she proved everyone wrong in 1999 by becoming the first Russian woman to win the world championship. That same year her car was blown up by a bomb. (No, Tonya Harding was not in Moscow at the time.) Butyrskaya has white blonde hair and rarely smiles. Like Cohen, Butyrskaya is known to engage in backstage and warmup gamesmanship.

Irina Slutskaya. She's the young Russian with rosy red cheeks. If Kwan is The Rock, Slutskaya is Chris Jericho. She is Kwan's main competition. At the Grand Prix Final in December, their last meeting before these Games, Slutskaya beat Kwan, but then she lost the European Championship to Butyrskaya. Like Jericho, Slutskaya talks and talks and talks. She enjoys the stage, but has a long way to go to break out of Kwan's shadow.

Other names you might hear are: Viktoria Volchkova, Elena Liashenko, Vaness Gusmeroli, Fumie Suguri. Consider these ladies the Rob Van Dams or the Dudleys of the figure skating world. Thanks for participating. Come to think of it, like the Dudleys, it would be more fun if all these skaters took the ice at the same time.

Dick Button is not involved ... as far as we can see ... in these Olympic Games. But he is Mr. Figure Skating. In a sport where reputation counts when scoring, Button's opinion makes or breaks careers. He is the Vince McMahon of figure skating. It's a shame we will not have his commentary. Button has compared skaters' legs to links of sausage. I swear. I heard it.

(A completely unrelated observation: As I watched the past few WWF events ... the New World Order storyline has me convinced wrestling is in serious ratings trouble. Threatening an NWO infusion would be like figure skating staging a Tonya Harding vs. Nancy Kerrigan showdown. Very sad. And a very bad sign.)

Second, know the lingo
Chris Jericho
Don't confuse Chris Jericho on the ice with Irina Slutskaya, though the Russian is a talker.
Belly to Belly Suplex, Clothesline, Stone Cold Stunner, Rock Bottom. Without the announcers' help, I couldn't tell one from the other. Skating's not much different. While some skaters have their own patented moves, the list of required elements is so long, it's really all they can do to complete those. You'll hear the terms flip, salchow, loop and the prefix single, double, triple in front of them. These are simply types of jumps and the number of rotations in the air skaters do before landing. Spins have names too: camel, death spiral, scratch.

The bottom line is this: the more rotations on the jumps the better. The tighter and faster the spins the better. Falling down is very bad. If your favorite skater falls and the others don't, consider her pinned.

Third, Choreography
This category really turns most men off. If it's a sport, why do they wear costumes, makeup and hairspray? I've heard this question many times. Why does Gold Dust wear glitter head-to-toe? Why is the Godfather walking into the ring with "escorts"? Remember, it's a performance. Skaters pick their costumes and music, and the judges take both into account.

Kwan is superior artistically. Her jumps, spins and footwork keep pace with her music, and they flow. She doesn't telegraph her moves. In this category, Kwan is most like Jericho ... very smooth. The Undertaker would receive very low artistic scores. He's big and awkward, and his moves are slow.

Fourth, everyone has some sort of title
Don't let this fool you. Make no mistake, Olympic gold medalist is the title to have.

But there are many others. Like Christian, wrestling's European champion, or William Regal, the Intercontinental champion, skating has a few champions. Michelle Kwan is the current U.S. national champion and world champion. Maria Butraskaya is the European champion. Gusmeroli is France's reigning champion. The Olympic gold medalist is the undisputed WWF/WCW champion ... à la Jericho.

Fifth, judging
The ladies will skate two programs -- a short (two-plus minutes) and long (4½ minutes). If a skater places in the top three during the short program, she has a shot at winning the gold. The long program counts for two-thirds of the total score. After each program, the skaters receive two sets of scores. One set rewards technical merit. The skaters who do more triple jumps are rewarded here. The other rewards artistic achievement.

Maria Butyrskaya
Maria Butyrskaya plays the tough and serious veteran.
Judging is very subjective. Fixed, some say -- especially after Monday night's fiasco in the pairs. You must remember that reputation counts. As with wrestling, most want the good guy to win. Kwan has given a lot to the sport. The fact she waited the four years since Nagano to compete again for gold will weigh heavily on the nine judges' minds.

Before you snicker at this, answer these questions: Why does the old wrestler always beat the young guy? Why do the wrestling gods seem to favor those who come up through the lower circuits rather than "tough enough" competition winners?

If you're hooked, you're in luck. Like the WWF, skaters travel around the country performing. Several touring companies take to the road post-Olympics. They'll come to an arena near you. Your mate will think you're a prince for getting tickets. (However, keep this in mind: At skating events, poster waving is considered bad form.)

Following skating is simple, as most guilty pleasures are. The reason women return to skating and men to wrestling time and time again is the same. Just when you think it's fixed ... a Tara Lipinski wins the gold in Nagano. Or Jericho beats The Rock. Like all good soap operas, success lies in the plot twists.

Now put the DVD remote down and enjoy your Olympic Games!

SportsCenter anchor Chris McKendry is a regular columnist for Page 2.



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