Pop a cold one, bubba, the gals are a-skatin'

JOHN EISENBERG

February 19, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

ALBERTVILLE, France -- It starts tonight, bubba. Here you go. The only moment in the beer-guzzlin', hog-callin', male-bondin', Swedish-bikini-teamin', compulsive-stat-keepin', just-plain-don't-like-each-otherin' man's world of sports in which da girls are a bigger deal than da boys.

We're talking about ladies' Olympic figure skating, bubba. La patinage artistique de les femmes, mon bubba. The main event of the Winter Games. Bigger than the men's figure skating. Bigger than the men's downhill. Bigger than the gut-bustin', nose-bleedin' ice hockey.

Why, it's even bigger than the World Series and NBA Finals, at least according to television ratings. That's right, the World dang Series, American Field of Dreams. Women's skating blisters it in the ratings.

Hey, we understand that's tough to take. You can't crush a beer can on your forehead and give a good wabawaba rebel yell watching girls skate. You can't invite a bunch of your main buds over and get into a big pizza-spittin', high-fivin' fight over who does the better triple Axel.

We understand. It just doesn't feel right. It just isn't, well, it just isn't a ballgame, right?

But it's big. Huge. The TV numbers for the 1988 ladies' skating final were bigger than the numbers for any big event that year except the Super Bowl. Even Wrestlemania. Almost half the sets in the country were tuned in. Something like that. Even the sports bars were tuned in. Aw, don't cry, bubba. No one wants to see you cry.

You just have to give in. That's all. It won't hurt. Just give up the changer. Go ahead. Give it to her. Face up to it. People get more worked up about these skaters than just about anyone else in sports. Maybe they do it only once every four years, but when they do, they do it big.

It's just this one time. Just this one week every four years when the girls are more important. Only one week when bigger and stronger doesn't mean more interesting. Only one week when higher and faster doesn't mean better.

It just isn't the same as tennis, where women pros are the undercard because they don't hit as hard. Or golf, where the women are third-class citizens because they hit from short tees. Or basketball, where the women don't even register a blip because they can't do a 360 like Mike.

This is different. The men skaters do triple-jump higher, but it doesn't matter. The men get credible TV ratings, but nothing close to the women. The women are the stars. Everyone would rather watch them.

Quick, name the biggest American names of the last quarter-century in the cold-weather Games. No, bubba, not Refrigerator Perry. Yes, Eric Heiden was big. But the biggest of all? Peggy Fleming. Dorothy Hamill.

Figure skaters. Figure skaters who weren't men. Fleming won the gold in 1968, Hamill in 1976. No one remembers who won the men's golds those years. Even when Scott Hamilton and Brian Boitano won golds in 1984 and 1988, they weren't the big story. They couldn't touch Katarina Witt.

Don't get it, bubba? OK. It's simple. Skating is a pretty sport. Also dramatic, elegant and athletic, but its basic appeal is that it is pretty. And most people would rather watch women be pretty than men.

We're not saying that's right or wrong. We're just saying that's the way it is. Roy Orbison didn't call the song "Pretty Man," did he?

Let's just try the direct approach. Here's why you might want to watch, bubba: The ladies' skaters might just be as good as the men this year. We know it's hard for you to buy that. But the men fell all over the place last week. They were lousy.

So now here comes Kristi Yamaguchi, Tonya Harding and this Japanese girl, Midori Ito, who jumps and jumps until you think she's going to fly away. They're all terrific. They don't fall much. They're graceful. They're pretty. It's no wonder everyone would rather watch them. And you want athletic? Check out Ito. She might have won a medal in the men's event, bubba. No kidding.

Hey, there's also a skater you can root for this year. Go ahead. Stand up and give one of your belly-wobblin' roars for Tonya Harding. She likes to shoot pool and race dragsters. If she weren't a figure skater, she'd probably rather watch football. Where men matter most. And girls cheer. Aw, don't cry, bubba. Really, it's just one week.

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