ALBERTVILLE, France -- The women's Olympic figure skating competition began today and where it ends on Friday may have a profound effect on the nature of the sport.
If the favorites, Midori Ito of Japan and Kristi Yamaguchi of Fremont, Calif., both skate flawlessly, the panel of nine judges will have to make a choice.
Does the gold medal belong to the best jumper or the best skater? What deserves more reward, the athletic or the artistic? In which direction should the sport proceed, toward the gymnastic or the balletic?
"I think it could be incredibly difficult to choose," said Yamaguchi's coach, Christy Ness. "It's a hard decision. Sometimes, it can come down to what one judge thinks. Brian Boitano won in 1988 by one-tenth of a point from one judge. Katarina Witt won by two-tenths by one judge."
"In Japan, everyone believes I am going to win the gold medal," Ito said. "I believe I will have the gold medal if everything works out in my free-skating program."
In the four-minute free program on Friday, Ito will unveil eight triple jumps, including the axel.
At the 1991 world championships, she steered too close to the wall on a combination jump and crashed through a hole in the boards, nearly whacking her head on a television camera and knocking herself into next week.
"I have changed the place for my jumps now, so that I can properaly execute them," Ito said.
She has also worked to add grace and elegance to her routine. At 4-foot-7, Ito is nearly a half-foot shorter than Yamaguchi.
Ito, though, is 22, two years older than her chief rival. She hopes those two years' experience will allow her to skate a more mature program.
"I know I cannot win just with my jumps," Ito said. "I must be able to show an improved performance in artistry. I am very small compared with Kristi Yamaguchi, but I am bigger in terms of age, so I will try to do something very adult. I'm confident I will radiate adulthood."
Yamaguchi is an ethereal wisp at 5-foot, 93 pounds. Sometimes painfully inarticulate off the ice, she has evolved into a tempting seductress in her long program, skating to the Spanish musical piece, "Malaguena."
She has underrated strength, too, for someone so small. At the U.S. championships last month, Yamaguchi won handily, incorporating seven triple jumps into her freeskating routine.
Each day at practice, 10 or 15 times, she attempts the triple axel. She has yet to land it. And it would be a foolhardy risk to attempt something so rigorous at a competition so important as the
Olympics. A gold medal can be worth as much as $10 million in endorsements and appearance fees.
"The content will stay the same here no matter what anyone else does," Yamaguchi said. "All of my work is done now. Whatever happens, happens."
Yamaguchi's head-to-head meeting with Ito comes at a time of strained economic relations between the U.S. and Japan. It is not an issue that Yamaguchi feels comfortable discussing. She dissolves into nervous giggles.
Though they have similar ancestry, Yamaguchi and Ito live, figuratively and literally, worlds apart. Yamaguchi is a fourth-generation American, the daughter of a dentist and a medical secretary from the San Francisco Bay Area. Her grandparents lost their belongings and were incarcerated in relocation camps for Japanese-Americans during and immediately after World War II.
Kristi's father, Jim, spent several years in an internment camp as a boy. Her mother, Carole, was born in a camp. Kristi speaks little of this ancestry, dismissing the camps as a time of panic, an aberration that will never be repeated. She is all-American enough to have endorsed Special K cereal.
Since the age of 10, Ito has lived apart from her divorced parents and with her coach, Michiko Yamada, in Nagoya, Japan. Yamada first spotted Ito at a public rink when the skater was but 5 years old.
"She was only a little girl, but I could tell she was destined for fame," Yamada said. "Even at that age, I had a feeling that here was a future champion."