Now that Michelle Kwan, Tara Lipinski and Nicole Bobek have finished 1-2-3 at the Olympic trials, many in the figure-skating community believe that they can also sweep the medals at next month’s Olympic Games.
“We can be 1-2-3,” said Christa Fassi, who coaches Bobek. “I really think we have the Dream Team for these Olympics.”
Never has the United States sent to the Olympics three women who have won a national championship. Kwan won her second national title on Saturday night with a joyous performance that received perfect marks of 6 from eight of the nine judges for artistry, after a short program on Thursday that was awarded seven 6’s for presentation. Combined, Kwan’s performances were considered the greatest efforts at the national championships.
“They will go down in history as the best set,” said Brian Boitano, the 1988 Olympic champion.
Concerning the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, it is not unprecedented for American women to win all the medals at an important competition. Kristi Yamaguchi, Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan finished first, second and third, respectively at the 1991 world championships. But several factors would seem to make an Olympic sweep unlikely.
First, it may be difficult for Kwan, Lipinski and Bobek to repeat in unison the engaging, redemptive performances they delivered on Saturday night. And even if they deserve the medals, it does not mean they will win them.
The Cold War is over, but judging can still play out along political fault lines. At the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, the 5-4 judges’ victory that Oksana Baiul of Ukraine achieved over Nancy Kerrigan of the United States to win the gold was a classic East versus West vote.
By the same token, what is often viewed as politics may be simply a matter of taste. Not every judge appreciates the same type of skating. Some may prefer the artistic sophistication of one skater, others may prefer the technical superiority of another. Baiul mesmerized an audience; Kerrigan was technically efficient but remote.
“You have so many countries; not all of them look at skating the same way,” said Linda Leaver, Boitano’s coach. “People are still arguing about Oksana and Nancy four years later. It’s not just East-West. It’s what people admire in a skater. I think the Americans will have to be slam-dunk good to sweep the medals. It will have to be indisputable.”
Besides the three Americans, only four other skaters appear to have a serious chance to win a medal: Tanja Szewczenko of Germany, Lu Chen of China, and Irina Slutskaya and Mariya Butyrskaya, both of Russia. Szewczenko, the German champion who landed seven triple jumps at a recent Olympic preview, is the biggest threat to an American sweep. Of the U.S. team, Bobek is erratic and is the most vulnerable to slipping out of the medal hunt.
Morry Stillwell, president of the U.S. Figure Skating Association, said he thought chances were small for an American sweep. “Szewczenko is really good,” he said.