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It's hers to lose

Slutskaya poised as ladies' favorite, but Cohen lurks

Posted: Monday February 20, 2006 11:46AM; Updated: Tuesday February 21, 2006 7:11AM
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With a silver medal, seven European titles and two world championships, Russia's Irina Slutskaya is the odds-on favorite to win the gold in Turin.
With a silver medal, seven European titles and two world championships, Russia's Irina Slutskaya is the odds-on favorite to win the gold in Turin.
Clive Rose/Getty Images

TURIN, Italy -- A quick preview of the ladies' figure skating competition while somehow keeping my eyes off the sambas, cha-chas, rhumbas and mambos of the Original Dance here at the Palavela Ice Pavilion. Silly me. I'd always thought the mambo was a poisonous snake.

Anyway, the ladies' is the marquee event of the Games, so we should begin the drum rolls, please. Russia's Irina Slutskaya is the favorite, and for good reason: She has experience (27 years old, she has skated in two previous Olympics, winning a  silver medal in 2002, and owns seven European titles and two world championships), high-scoring tricks (Biellmann spins with both legs, a triple lutz-triple loop combination, to which she sometimes adds a double loop) and motivation (no Russian woman has ever won the Olympic gold medal).

In the new code-of-points system, Slutskaya has the highest total any woman has recorded: 198.06. She won't beat herself. Someone will have to outskate her.

The most likely person to do that is American champion Sasha Cohen. She has the second highest tally in the new code of points: 197.60 -- about a three-turn shy of Slutskaya's. And she does everything better than Slutskaya except jump. She spins better, spirals better and transitions better. Cohen's been training in Courmayeur all week, an hour and a half outside of Turin, and according to her agent, Lee Marshall, she's in a great frame of mind: healthy, focused on the job at hand and relaxed, without the distractions of media interviews or sponsor obligations.

Cohen returned to Turin on Sunday afternoon and will practice on the Olympic rink on Monday, then meet briefly with the press. One note of concern: In the short program she will skate last, immediately after Italian champion and '05 world bronze medalist Carolina Kostner, who was Italy's flag-bearer during the Opening Ceremonies.

The place will explode if Kostner skates well, and Cohen will have been pacing around backstage for some 40 minutes since her warmup. She has a history of falling in big competitions, but if she can endure that long wait and remain centered in the face of the raucous reception that will greet her after Kostner skates, it will bode well for her prospects on Thursday.

Then there is the formidable Japanese armada of Miki Ando, Shizuka Arakawa and Fumie Suguri. All have been skating extraordinarily well during practices in Turin. The 18-year-old Ando, the '04 world junior champion, is the only woman to have landed a quad in competition -- though it isn't clear if she'll try it in Turin. Arakawa, 24, the '04 world champion, has been doing five different triple-triple jumps in practice, including a spectacularly surreal triple-triple-triple. And Suguri, 25, the reigning (and five-time) Japanese champion, may have the best overall package of the three.

Could any (or all?) of them take the top prize? Sure. But don't bet on it. There's a reason that despite a proud history of fine figure skaters, only one Japanese, man or woman, has medaled in the Olympics (Midori Ito, who won a silver in '92): pressure. As much pressure as American media puts on its medal hopefuls, multiply that times five for the Japanese. Remember the hordes of Japanese reporters that followed baseball stars like Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui around when they came to the major leagues? It's a similar situation in figure skating. In a sport where tension is the enemy of greatness, that has proved too formidable an obstacle for Japanese skaters to surmount.

Predictions? Even without Michelle Kwan, this event will attract the largest television ratings of the Games.