SALT LAKE CITY — Almost from the moment I arrived at the airport here, I could feel the pressure. It wasn’t simply the huge media focus on Michelle Kwan and her two American challengers, Sasha Cohen and Sarah Hughes, but the very serious issue of judging such a subjective sport. Not unlike fashion, no?
Having been a competitive skater myself, and an emotional one at that, I, too, have my favorite competitors. However, like many things, figure skating is a very complex thing to evaluate and tonight [Tuesday], for the ladies’ short program, it was no different.
Hughes, in a prim, subtle, dignified navy long-sleeved dress, was elegant, cautious and refined in her performance. Unfortunately, due to an edge that changed her triple lutz combination (the “flutz,” a fault many skaters committed), she was not awarded the marks I felt she deserved.
Next was Cohen, one of the most balletic of skaters. Subtle, graceful, with great jumps and incredible life, she was a vision in a simple tank dress in pale blue Lycra spandex and chiffon with “blizzard” beading. Yet the pressure of the Olympics seemed to affect her as well. She was not as effervescent or artistically arrogant as she was at the Nationals. Fumie Suguri, also a lyrical skater, performed beautifully, but she was not considered a serious contender, I believe, because she skated early on.
As for the clothes, pale blue is definitely the color of this Olympics. At least 10 of the 27 female skaters wore pastel tones, and many others wore variations of pale. One exception was Jennifer Robinson of Canada, who wore a Fifties-inspired dress with a black top and polkadot skirt, complete with pearls and white gloves (a little scary on ice, if not on a fashion runway.) Most of the women looked surprisingly elegant. I did not say experimental, innovative or avant-garde, but pretty — which is a lot better than how skaters used to look.
The pale blue dress of Maria Butyrskaya was extravagant and forced, but it had a certain something on her. The peekaboo giant flower strategically placed over her bosom was not entirely respectful of Olympic rules, but it was dramatic and very Maria — even though it did not help her shaky performance.
The other serious contender was Kwan’s arch rival, Irina Slutskaya, from Russia. Also dressed in blue, Slutskaya’s costumes are never about style or elegance, but this year she looked cleaner and subtler than normal. But she, too, seemed cautious and overly conservative in her performance.
Finally, there was Kwan, whom I had the good fortune to dress. In the same costume she wore at the Nationals, she skated a clean, competent and elegant performance despite impossible pressure. Her dress was among the only dark ones, in this case a deep purple with multicolored crystal flowers embroidered with gold bullion threads. Her artistry and elegance make her a great champion under any circumstances, and Tuesday night she defended her position.
The challenge of figure skating is that it combines all that is athletic and technical with an impossible game of mind control and, finally, the need to emote, excite and intrigue a stadium audience. No matter how the skating controversy is resolved, it is still one of the most intriguing sports, and one in which fashion has come to play an enormous role.