ALBERTVILLE,FRANCE — ALBERTVILLE, France -- The pendulum is swinging.
Once, ladies' figure skating was a soap opera of a sport, more art than action, more emotion than energy.
But not anymore.
Now, it's a triple-jump montage, a sport filled with athletes who lace up their skates as if they're putting on Air Jordans.
If you can't do six triples and smile, there is no need to apply for the gold medal at the Winter Olympics.
Tonight, the present -- and the future -- will be on display in the ladies' singles final.
In one corner will be the artists like Kristi Yamaguchi and Nancy Kerrigan of the United States. In the other, will be vivacious athletes like Surya Bonaly of France and Midori Ito of Japan.
At stake isn't just the gold medal -- it's the future of a sport whirling toward becoming a long-jump competition.
This is no Dueling Carmens, the plot line that carried the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, Alberta. Back then, Katarina Witt of East Germany and Debi Thomas of the United States put on programs to Bizet's "Carmen" that were so technically tame, they wouldn't even make the top five tonight.
"I would get creamed now," Thomas said.
The reason: Ladies' figure skating has undergone a transformation brought about by rules changes and a new generation of tumblers dressed in tutus.
In 1991, the compulsory figures, elegant figure-eight etchings on ice that formed the basis of the sport, were abandoned. Although they only counted toward 20 percent of the overall score, the compulsories set the stage for the free-skating performances.
Without the compulsories, judges can no longer leisurely rank skaters. They are forced to make quick, split-second decisions during a taut contest known as the original program, a series of required elements set to music.
One slip, and a skater is out.
This is now a power sport. Skaters go for triples as if they were leaping for slam-dunks.
"I don't have anything against the triple-jump era," Thomas said. "They're very exciting when they're done properly. I don't think there is anything wrong with the direction skating is taking."
Others do, however.
Dick Button, a two-time Olympic men's champion and ABC-TV commentator, called last month's U.S. Figure Skating Championships, "The Triple Jump Championships." He said, "The skaters have lost their artistry because people just count the triples now."
The triple that counts most is the Axel, a 3 1/2 -revolution jump that is now routine among the men, but still an unattainable leap for most women. Of the top performers, only Ito, Bonaly and Tonya Harding can complete the jump.
But not every time.
Moments before she made her 1992 Olympic debut, Ito dropped the Axel from her original program, plopped on the Lutz, and fell to fourth. Harding, the 1990 U.S. champion and 1991 world runner-up, tumbled on her Axel and landed all the way to sixth -- virtually out of medal contention.
"The only two real power jumpers here are Harding and Ito," said Evy Scotvold, who coaches Kerrigan. "That's riskier jumping. They're go
ing for home runs. When you hit the big stuff, you win. When you don't, you lose."
But Scotvold said that Kerrigan and Yamaguchi also have the ability to pull off difficult jumps.
"These girls are not throwbacks," he said. "They're athletes, too."
Witt, the two-time Olympic champion who is now a commentator for CBS-TV, has been critical of the artistic elements she has seen displayed by the skaters in practice sessions. Only Yamaguchi meets her exacting standards of performing in front of crowds. But the woman who flirted and jumped her way to successive golds in 1984 and 1988 said there is nothing wrong with a sport that progresses through the air.
"It's amazing what these women do," she said. "But I hope they are safe and secure enough. The guys are doing so many difficult things, and a lot of them are getting hurt. It's now so difficult to skate a perfect, clean program. There is nothing safe or in between anymore. But top figure skating to me is not only jumping, jumping, jumping. It is artistry, too."
By all accounts, the one skater who combines all the elements is Yamaguchi, the 1991 world champion who stands first after the original program. Although Kerrigan and Bonaly also can win the gold tonight by winning the long program, worth 67 percent of the overall score, it is Yamaguchi who remains in commanding position. Her blend of the artistic with the athletic may point the way to the future.
It takes a tumbler with the talent of a dancer to win Olympic gold.
"Kristi Yamaguchi is probably more artistic than any skater in the last 10 or 12 years," Thomas said. "She still does all the triple jumps and the combination jump -- she really has it all."
But tonight, only one skater will emerge with gold.
Will it be Yamaguchi, or Kerrigan, or Bonaly, or Ito? The answer will send a sport spiraling to the future.
"The more jumps, the harder jumps, the better, as long as they skate like women," Scotvold said. "Artistry is nice. But without athleticism, it's boring."
A pendulum swings between the future and the gold medal.