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IN SALT LAKE, IT'LL BE A TIME FOR THE LADIES.

Byline: PAUL OBERJUERGE

SALT LAKE CITY - Michelle Kwan marched in the opening ceremonies on Friday night.

She should have been carried, in a litter, with skiers strewing rose petals in her path.

Sasha Cohen sat in a chair and answered questions at a news conference Friday afternoon.

It should have been a throne, with Salt Lake Olympic Committee officials prostrate before her.

Sarah Hughes had breakfast in the Athletes Village. We trust snowboarders waited on her, and the village chef made sure she didn't have to eat the same swill the Winter Games commoners got.

Let's get this straight right now: Ladies' skating is the queen of the Winter Olympics, the belle of this ball.

Yeah, sure, the Salt Lake 2002 Winter Games last 17 days, and involve 2,550 athletes from 79 countries competing in 78 events. But all the Winter Olympics really are about are two nights at the rink: The ladies' short program Feb. 19 and the ladies' free skate Feb. 21.

Everything else? Stuff to fill in around and (particularly) before the ladies skate. Goofball extreme sport or quaint Scandinavian folk sport, and all of it is about as relevant to the average American as yodeling.

Biathlon? What's that, a triathlon minus the swimming? Curling? The Nordic answer to shuffleboard? Ski jumping? A Norwegian method of suicide?

Slalom, Super-G, luge, parallel slalom ... hey, speak English, would you?

But figure skating, especially ladies' figure skating ... now you're pushing some buttons and selling some tickets, capturing some eyeballs and shaking loose advertising dollars.

American television pays for the Olympic movement. And ladies' skating makes the Winter Games worthwhile for American television. Style, grace, beauty, athleticism. All there in one package, with easy closeups.

Michelle, Sasha, Sarah. We didn't even need to be reminded they skate, did we? Most Americans, male and female, already know them, already have opinions on them, already have formed a rooting interest for how it shakes out - gold, silver, bronze.

Even the foreign skaters are better known than domestic ``stars'' in other Winter sports. Hmm, Irina Slutskaya or Bode Miller? Maria Butyrskaya or Apolo Anton Ohno? Will Daron Rahlves get you to tune in to NBC?

And this isn't some recent phenomenon. Most of us could name five former Olympic skaters in 10 seconds (Katarina Witt, Peggy Fleming, Nancy Kerrigan, Tonya Harding, Christy Yamaguchi!), but we would need a Google search to name five former Olympic anything-elses.

What is a bit amazing about all this is that the skaters don't seem quite up to speed on the power and influence they wield.

If America's skate sweethearts on Friday said they wanted $1 million apiece before they took the ice Feb. 19 ... well, SLOC would be writing three checks. If they said they wanted penthouse suites in Utah's best hotels and every meal catered by four-star restaurants, a personal masseuse and a dozen servants and 100 fresh roses in the room every morning and a limo idling on the street 24/7, well, they probably would get that, too.

Skaters like to see themselves as athletes and, of course, they are. Watch Sasha caper like a gymnast. See Sarah and Irina jump. Study Michelle's footwork. You don't just tumble out of bed and win the short program. It takes strength, skill and courage to do what they do.

But first and foremost, the ladies skaters are stars. Divas. Prima ballerinas. The rest of the show revolves around them. They sell the tickets, they lure advertisers. Everyone else is a spear carrier in this icy drama.

As if we needed to be reminded of the over-the-top interest in all things ladies'-skating, the U.S. threesome held a news conference at noon Friday, and they got a media turnout worthy of Princess Diana.

And, remember, they don't even compete till a week from Tuesday.

Of course, we all want to know what they are doing between now and then. Coming or going? Changing your costume or keeping it? New music? Another triple-triple combination?

No detail is too small when it comes to our skating sprites and that, folks, is the mark of the star.

We will entertain ourselves with this other circus-like stuff for the next 10 days. Watch people tumble off mountains and slide through ice chutes. But we know it is all prelude to the main event.

Sorry, Picabo, but you are a warmup act. Sorry, Mr. Cross Country Skier, but our interest in you is how long an icicle you form from your nose before you reach the finish line. Our attention may be piqued by the men's skating or by ice dancing, but we all know we're on hold for the OK Corral of this roundup.

The opera isn't over till the fat lady sings? The Olympics aren't official until the ladies skate.

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photo

Photo:

Michelle Kwan, center, could be crowned the queen of the Olympics if she can win the ladies' figure-skating gold medal.

Doug Mills/Associated Press
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Feb 9, 2002
Words:828
Previous Article:THIS TIME, KWAN MAKES TIME `TO TAKE IN THE WHOLE EXPERIENCE'.
Next Article:THINGS BODE WELL FOR U.S. MILLER'S AGGRESSIVE STYLE EXPECTED TO BE WORTHY OF MEDALS.


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