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On Figure Skates, Americans Rule

Finally, it is America's time to show the world how good good can be. At last - at last - it will be the women's figure-skating long program taking over today in Nagano. It is the most anticipated winter Olympics event by millions of people from coast to coast, border to border, and around the world as well as by all the military forces in foreign lands and those aboard ships at sea.

This is big. Real big.

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You Russians and Norwegians can have your screwy biathlon and you Japanese can have your silly ski jumping and you Canadians can have your goofy curling, but those are but specks on Olympic radar compared with our majestic figure skating. Hope all you other 82 nations don't hurt your necks looking up at two, that's 1-2, Americans on the medal stand. Ha! We're really terrific at this so deal with it. (Besides, we need a lift after the US men's hockey debacle.)

We are the nation of Kristi Yamaguchi, Dorothy Hamill, Peggy Fleming, Carol Heiss, Tenley Albright, and don't you forget it. And don't bring up Germany's Katarina Witt to us. So she won in 1984 and 1988. Maybe the US decided not to try those Olympics, OK?

For ratings-beleaguered and artistically challenged CBS, the show can't take center ice a moment too soon. Americans love figure skating and will prove it by handing CBS its happiest numbers of the Olympic fortnight this evening.

The competitive elements are extraordinary. It's not quite as dramatic as Tanya and Nancy four years ago in the Thug vs. The Princess. (Oksana Baiul of Ukraine won that year. We're trying to get over it.) But 1998 is pretty darned good.

There's elegant Michelle Kwan from Torrance, Calif., where her parents own a Chinese restaurant. Even though she likes bowling, she is depressingly bright and aspires to a Harvard law degree. The US, as is well known, has a lawyer shortage so this is a very good idea.

Then there's spectacular Tara Lipinski, from Sugarland, Texas, who roller-skated until she became mature enough to know that figure skating held a much brighter future. She made that decision when she was 6. In practices here, the media proclaimed her sharp, even though truth be told, most of the media don't know sharp from Silly Putty when it comes to figure skating.

The most bothersome aspect to the competition is, as always, too often it's not really unfettered competition. That's because this grand athletic contest - assuming an activity that is intensely interested in costumes and music can be sport - is always bedeviled by judges with Byzantine minds, often behaving badly, who score erratically and never explain.

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So basically, the judges - who further cast doubt on their own integrity and authenticity by attending the skaters' practice sessions in order to solidify their preconceived opinions - have made up their minds before the first scrape of the first blade.

Beneficiary of this craziness this year likely will be Michelle Kwan. That's because she is the reigning US champ, having managed to defeat Lipinski in the Nationals, reversing the results of the 1997 World Championships. So, judges are of a strong mind at this very moment to reward Kwan.

It's similar to boxing where it normally takes a blowout performance by the challenger to dislodge the champ. Kwan, because she's the incumbent queen, could win with an inferior performance to Lipinski - and the world would, for the billionth time, scream foul. Only if Kwan ends up decorating the ice with her prone body and Lipinski shoots out all the lights can the preordained order be altered.

Then there was Nicole Bobek, from Chicago, reigning free spirit who can charm the glare off the ice. Regrettably, she suddenly can't remember how to skate on it. The talk was she would end up third, a trifecta of American superiority. Alas, her short program performance Wednesday - totally unlike those of Kwan and Lipinski who finished 1-2 - was horrific. She didn't complete a single required jump. She was 17th out of 28.

But the scoring skulduggery notwithstanding, Kwan and Lipinski are apt to put on a show of memorable style, class, talent, and performance.

Any chance the US skaters will lose? Naw, come on. They are Americans and figure skating is us. Plus, the judging is fixed.

* Douglas S. Looney's e-mail address is:

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