The Jewel Of The Winter Games

"I always tell my girls: think like a man, but act and look like a woman." --CAROL HEISS, gold medalist, 1960, now a successful coach The Winter Olympics may be the pastry cart of sport, what cruise ships are to navigation and Mardi Gras is to worship. There is, however, one element that utterly distinguishes them. The showpiece of these Games, the jewel event, is the ladies' figure skating, the figs-and it is absolutely the only time, ever, on the sporting calendar, when what women do matters more to fandom than what the male brutes manage.

The Winter Games are always good TV fare, the marriage of glistening snow and a sweeps month. But the popularity of the ladies' figs is special-at the confluence of "Little Women," "Pretty Woman" and "Designing Women." When Katarina Witt won her second gold in '88, the prime-time ratings in the United States topped out past 35, the sort of number that baseball and basketball never fetch and that football obtains only for the Super Bowl itself.

This year the women's skaters are more important than ever. There are no more big, bad communists for athletic jingoists to root against, and that tired lightning-in-a-bottle U.S. hockey miracle of the '80 Games just cannot be dragged out and flogged again. "We don't even think of hockey as prime-time fare anymore," says Rick Gentile, vice president of Olympic programming for CBS.

Mr. Tisch's people who overspent for the Winter Games are lucky, too. They have the sort of protagonists who can be billed off the ice as well-defined characters in the same way that Chrissy-Martina played so nicely in tennis for folks who didn't care all that much about the tennis.

There is even added irony this year. In a sport where no woman but of white, Northern European birth or heritage has ever won the figs, the battle for the gold and all the lucre it earns sets up a duel between two young women named Yamaguchi and Ito, whose bloodlines both stretch back, pure and simple, to the same soft, cherry-blossom days on the one bold little island of Honshu. The twist is, though, that if the powerful Ito is Midori, of Nagoya, the delicate Yamaguchi is Kristi, from the Bay Area, fourth-generation American. It's the chrysanthemum and the sword-on the ice together, worlds apart.

This showdown was shaped by the momentous events of 1988, which began with the incandescent Witt (and the other medalists) ankling off into ice shows. A bit later, to even greater consequence, the International Skating Union instituted the most dramatic revolution ever in the sport, voting to eliminate the "school" figures, those painful multiplication tables of sport. And then, on Nov. 2, out of the blue at a backwater competition in Aichi Prefecture, little Midori Ito became the first woman to throw a triple axel.

The axel, named after Norwegian skater Axel Paulsen, is the most difficult of jumps, the only one the skater attempts while moving forward, and when Ito made it, it changed the whole equation for women. When she scored with it again in Paris a few months later, Ito was voted the first Asian world champion. No American would hit the triple axel for another two years. But as soon as a blond hotspur from Portland, Ore., named Tonya Harding, who had been seventh the year before, landed it at the '91 U.S. nationals, she brought down the house and was hastily awarded the crown that had been tacitly reserved for Yamaguchi.

Figure skating has always been schizophrenic, never quite sure what it should be: art or athletics, grace or strength, a show or a match, a dance or a jump. Even in the calmest of times, the judges try to guess which way the hybrid is leaning, and when the triple axel appeared, the judges were intimidated. "Judges got scared not to put the girl who can jump on top," says one coach. "Look, jumps are black and white. Tonya makes a triple axel and everybody in the building can see it. It's so much harder to defend your marks on what's tasteful and beautiful."

Poor Yamaguchi. Paradoxically, in the past, she had always been labeled "the athlete" in comparison to the artistic Jill Trenary, the three-time U.S. champion, 1987, '89, '90. Then suddenly Yamaguchi found herself written off as some kind of a bush leaguer just because she couldn't hit the triple axel; never mind that she can land all the other triples extant: loop, lutz, Salchow, toe loop and flip. Suddenly, the only thing Yamaguchi ever seemed to be asked was: how come a real skater like you can't do the triple axel? Says Yamaguchi's coach, an exasperated and bemused Christy Kjarsgaard Ness: "This thing was never meant to be a pole vault."

Tell it to da judges, lady. The emphasis on acrobatics has been heightened with the corresponding demise of the school figures, the single most tedious exercise in sport this side of any given World Cup soccer match. For the school figs, competitors were required to trace precise, ordered marks in the ice. The judges then came out and bent over and, rather like so many witch doctors examining chicken entrails, studied these symmetrical scratchings and ordained the champion. "Short" and "free" skating programs followed, but it was mostly a sham; 94 percent of the school winners became the world champs. American darlings like Janet Lynn, Linda Fratianne and Elaine Zayak could wow the Olympic crowds, but they couldn't beat the Teutonic likes of Trixie Schuba or Anett Potzsch-so now, fraulein, you vill do ze fig-guh eights.

Luckily for us, television has a compact with Beelzebub. We all attack television and blame it for the vulgarization of the world, but every now and then we can thank the Lord for television and global vulgarization. TV kept putting pressure on the tight little skating world and finally forced it to give up the schools. Some very good skaters couldn't make the transition. It's like when the talkies came in, and it turned out that some leading men didn't sound at all like a leading man. Nevertheless, while the three legs of the stool that figure skating rests on-precision, grace and athleticism-occasionally may have been rocked, ultimately, what appeals to the sport's audience is whatsoever is most beautiful, whatsoever is most lovely, whatsoever is most sexy. In Europe, anyway, by far the most popular photograph of any skater in recent years is not of anybody jumping, but of Witt coming completely out of the top of her outfit after a simple spin.

The ladies' figs establishment is hardly unaware of this reality. The insiders also know that grace sure don't come as easy as bouncing. If jumps become the sine qua non of the competition, then younger and younger skaters, concentrating on a few energetic moves, could turn figure skating into another (offstage: screams, groans, shrieks, noisy wrist slittings) gymnastics. That specter, of teensy-weensy little prepubescent bubbles popping about, haunts the figure-skating beadledom. "Look," wails one panicky official when the dreaded comparison with gymnastics is uttered, "ninety percent of our girls are attractive, and they all have breasts."

All this began with-no argument-Sonja Henie. La Henie won her first world-figs title at 14 in 1927, then nine more in a row and three Olympics. She came to the United States after the '36 Games for big money and made it with both her Hollywood Ice Revue and real Hollywood movies too. At one point La Henie trailed only Shirley Temple and Clark Gable as a box-office draw, and her affair with the great heavyweight Joe Louis was no doubt the most spectacular liaison between two world champions ever documented outside the Bluegrass.

This showbiz legacy of the Ice Queen has been most neatly embraced in our times by the last two American gold medalists, Peggy Fleming in '68 and Dorothy Hamill in '76, as well as by the beauteous Katarina bird, freed from her communist cage at the most propitious moment. Michael Rosenberg, Hamill's former agent, who now represents Harding, estimates that the ladies' winner can earn $10 million before the 20th century runs its course. Rosenberg even claims that Hamill made more money than did Chris Evert and tennis is the only other women's sport that pays off in men's currency.

Still, only the ladies' figs beats the men, which is what makes the jumpmania so risky, so potentially self-destructive. If the main criterion becomes jumps, if the athleticism overwhelms the elegance, then the women risk those lethal direct comparisons that have compromised the popularity of all other women's sports: ahh, they can't dunk ... ahh, they hit from the short tees.

Already there is the sense that the jumps are cannibalizing the competition. The skaters are going down like tenpins, as they pound away at jumps on the unforgiving ice. And worse, perhaps, they're becoming so preoccupied with their all-or-nothing jumps that they louse up the heart and soul of the skating that lies, inescapably, between the jumps. But never mind. Evy Scotvold, who coaches the graceful Nancy Kerrigan, the third American woman at Albertville, says baldly: "The ones who have the triple axel can only beat themselves."

And so, indisputably, at least for this Olympic moment, the nature of the sport has been altered. "I tell you, we're going to start losing audience if the people see too many falls," says Carol Heiss, who is, perhaps, the most well-lighted bridge between Sonja Henie and Ito; it was Carol Heiss, in 1956, who was the first woman ever to hit a double axel. "The jumps were never supposed to mean so much. You need it all: the lightness and the airiness; the music, the personality." She paused. "You need the caressing of the ice."

Ito speaks much the same way, only coming from another direction. "I like jumps because they bring me the greatest pleasure," she says. "All I can really do is jump. Figure skating is a matter of beauty, and Westerners are so stylish, so slender. I wish I could be beautiful like them."

The kicker to this is that while Yamaguchi is almost five inches taller than the 4-foot-7 Ito and totally of Japanese descent, she perfectly represents the stylish Western ideal that the stout little Midori is so envious of Although absolutely petite, a size 1, 93 pounds, Yamaguchi is cut high, with a Betty Boop mouth and two beauty marks wonderfully positioned under the left eye and the lips. Ito, though, is simply short, her powerful legs bowed in an old-fashioned way, what the Japanese once called, unkindly of their women, daikon legs, after the archipelago's big, squat radishes. In matters of appearance, it doesn't seem that Yamaguchi and Ito grew up in different lands so much as if they came from different centuries.

Midori is a common enough name, usually meaning "green." She is sweet and friendly, if perhaps unnecessarily insecure because she feels the pressure put upon her from her country, one otherwise so prepossessing, but with little world athletic success. Ito's bent toward self-deprecation may also be colored by the fact that she has spent all her life in Nagoya, a large city, but one drab and uncultured that takes the brunt of all the Polish-joke-type gags from the more cosmopolitan Tokyo comedians.

Since the age of 10, after her parents divorced, Ito has resided with her coach Machiko Yamada. There are only 28 rinks in all of Japan, and Ito has always had to practice on the one in Nagoya which was built almost 40 years ago. It is subsize and packed with recreational skaters; she never could have perfected school figures there. She was an obvious athlete from the start, and her artistry is improving all the time, but it was strictly the jumps that got Midori Ito out of Nagoya and into the big, clean championship rinks.

Kristi Yamaguchi is still a Buddhist, and very much a hyphenated American; to wit: Middle-American, California-American, beauty-American. Ruefully, her mother, Carole, chuckles that she can't recall any of her three children ever dating anyone but a Caucasian. And ice skating? That's practically subversive compared with the hopelessly American activities that Kristi's siblings have preferred. Lori, her older sister, was on a championship baton-twirling team, and Brett is, at 5 feet 10, a starting guard on his high-school basketball five.

But then, both sides of Kristi's family have been ensconced in this country for almost a century, settled here decades before Congress wrote the bigoted Immigration Act of 1924 to keep Japanese out; of course, this did not prohibit their incarceration after Pearl Harbor. Carole Doi's father was ripped out of the University of Southern California, and, with the rest of his family, sent off to a camp in Colorado. That is where Carole was born. The Doi's lost their flower farm in Gardena, just as up north, in Gilroy, the Yamaguchis lost a ranch and all that was theirs, too. But Mrs. Yamaguchi is reluctant to talk about any of that, because, it seems, it was a long time ago and none of them want to dwell on it anymore. Or, if they do, they won't let us know.

Carole Doi and Jim Yamaguchi both went to Cal-Berkeley, and married, and he became a dentist and they raised three California-dreamin' kids, one of whom just happens to be a young idol who endorses Special K. Probably, Midori Ito's mother doesn't want to talk about what happened to her when she was a little girl in the '40s, either. It's all very far away by now.

Tonya Harding doesn't want to talk much about her past either. Her father was usually out of work, on the move. Her mother's been married six times and has had a number of children, one of whom, an older brother, sexually assaulted Tonya once. She's had asthma all her life. She shoots pool and runs drag races. She's a tough cookie. In fact, everybody who makes reference to Harding, like her or not, is bound to say: "a tough cookie." It's like an official part of her name, a position, like: Tonya Harding, shortstop, or Tonya Harding, soprano; Tonya Harding, tough cookie. When she got married, it didn't work, and she left her husband last year and took out a restraining order. Now they're back together. Tough cookie.

At the nationals, before a large press conference, Harding drew a breath and answered, forthrightly: "My husband's always been very supportive of me. I've always had food on my plate and a roof over my head. "She sighed, done. Phew. But:

"Tonya," someone called out, "but Tonya: would you say you skated all these years as an escape?"

She stared back with her cobalt blue eyes, then turned to her coach and inquired of her, as a witness at a Senate subcommittee might go to counsel. Then she nodded and turned back to face the crowd. "I guess so," was all she said.

It's a very funny thing, but Harding and Yamaguchi are the two Americans and Ito and Yamaguchi are the two Japanese, but Ito and Harding are the ones most alike. They're the ones with the families that didn't work out and the hard rows to hoe, and they're the ones who aren't as beautiful or as elegant. But then, they're also the ones with the triple axels.

Yamaguchi was born with club feet, but special shoes corrected them straightaway, and she grew up a natural, starting to skate at 6. In high school, her mother would wake at 3:45 so they could get to the rink at 5 for fresh ice. Yamaguchi was, for years, a pairs skater, too, twice national champion in 1989-90; she's so good that both years she finished second to Trenary while barely practicing singles half the time.

If Ito feels the proud glare of Japan upon her, Yamaguchi is more special in her native land. There has never been an American athlete-or, for that matter, an entertainer-of Japanese heritage in the first-celebrity rank, and apart from Hawaii, where Japanese descendants such as Sen. Daniel Inouye have been most prominent, there have never been any notable Japanese-Americans in the public eye. And, of course, here comes potentially this first one, this exquisite wisp, drawing dreams in the ice to "Malaguena" and "The Blue Danube." But she comes at precisely that moment when so many Americans are blaming the Japanese, rounding on them, making devils of them ... and not pausing to check birth certificates.

And now: what's a good ole boy to do if there's not only a Toyota in the driveway and a Sony in the bedroom and a Mitsubishi in the family room--but on the screen there, as the band plays the "Star-Spangled Banner," is the All-American girl of 1992, and her name is Yamaguchi?

If any of this, if any of the present implications of her heritage and the potential symbolic magnitude of her stage at Albertville fazes Yamaguchi, it is certainly not evident. "On Kristi's most frustrating days," her coach, Kjarsgaard Ness, says, ,'she shows it-maybe--but only in her body language. That's all." Of course, nobody really knows how the triple axel eats at Yamaguchi. If she just had the triple axel, it wouldn't be any contest-who knows, she could be La Henie and Peggy and Dorothy and Katarina all rolled into one. But maybe she's too smart even to worry about that. Certainly, deep within her, she is still Japanese-some of her must be-and if she should win it's because, while the others have the triple axel, only she has the best of both worlds.