Winter Olympics: Will Figure Skating’s Young Darling Charm Sochi’s Edgy Games?

Can extreme sports ever grab as much attention as Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan, wonders Olympian Donna de Varona

Winter Olympics: Will Russia's Lipnitskaia Charm
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

The Winter Olympics are pushing snowboarding and other extreme sports as a way to boost the audience, but  ladies figure skating remains one of the biggest draws on TV. Competition is as intense as ever this year, but it will be hard to top the days of Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan for mass audience appeal.

Determined to win back a dwindling audience, this edition of the Winter Olympic Games has embraced innovation with 12 new events, hoping to capture the X Games generation. So far, American athletes who are high-flying, risk-taking, edgy daredevils have been first to capture gold in both men’s and women’s slopestyle snowboarding.

It’s not surprising that Americans dominate these sports: The pioneers of “freestyle” skiing hail from the mountains of Sun Valley, Vail, Aspen and Park City. They were the stars of the early Willy Bogner, Warren Miller and K’2-sponsored ski films. 1968 downhill skier and Olympian Suzy Chaffee, (popularly known as Suzy Chapstick) helped to take the ski industry into a new era, one that just may save the Winter edition of Olympic sports.

Yet long before women’s ski jumping and slopestyle were added to the Olympic calendar, figure skating was the big draw, and it’s still the marquee event of the Winter Games. Ratings for the sport peaked peaked at the 1994 Lillehammer games, which not coincidentally was the year of Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding. Olympic gold medal hopeful Kerrigan  suffered a knee injury in a shocking attack as she left the practice ice — and soon after the incident, her chief rival Harding and Harding’s entourage became the lead suspects.

Nancy and Tonya were suddenly household names and the ongoing media frenzy became the stuff of reality TV. The constant coverage helped to deliver, on the night of the Olympic women’s short program, the sixth-highest TV ratings in American television history.

So who wound up winning the gold medal in the ladies’ singles competition in 1994? Not the infamous Tonya Harding; not the brave Nancy Kerrigan who brought home the silver medal, but Oksana Baiul, a petite 16-year-old Ukranian, who took the gold medal by the vote of one judge.

Ironically, the headline for the future of figure skating was buried as the Nancy and Tonya soap opera played out. If the American justice system had kept Harding off the traveling team, 13-year-old Michelle Kwan, the U.S. team alternate, would have made her Olympic debut.

Kwan went on to win more world championships than any U.S. skater in history but fate denied her Olympic gold in her only two opportunities. At the 1998 Nagano Games, Kwan was the favorite only to lose to 15-year-old Tara Lipinski, who skated the performance of her life. Heading into the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics Kwan was again expected to win but she was edged out by Sarah Hughes, a 16-year-old who delivered a spectacular and perfect program. Sarah had nothing to lose but  the relentless pressure to win proved too heavy a burden for Kwan. Kwan’s cycle of dominance came in the years between Olympic Games but her enduring popularity is a tribute to her grace in the face of crushing disappointment.

The question now is: Who will take the Ladies Figure Skating crown in Sochi? The answer could echo the competition of 20 years ago. Going into the games, much of the media attention the current queen of the ice, South Korea’s Yu Na Kim; Japan’s veteran frontrunner, Mao Asada; and Gracie Gold, the talented young American with the name that might seem prophetic.

But a Russian teenager who emerged as a real contender only this season might end up atop the podium. Since winning the 2014 European Women’s title Yulia Lipnitskaia is riding high on a tide of momentum that many believe will help her capture Russia’s first gold in women’s singles competition. Lipnitskaia has become a media darling, and is getting the kind of scrutiny usually reserved for teen pop stars, right down to her controversial choice of music: the theme from Schindler’s List.

With her extraordinary spins, balletic style and charismatic beauty, Lipnitskaia is already credited with bringing an audience back to the sport of figure skating. I was in the arena when she took to the ice. Vladimir Putin was there too. He applauded politely for all the teams — but there is no doubt that the message he wants to send the world in bringing the Olympics to Sochi is that Russia’s treasured sports culture is restored.

In what is another new Olympic event, the “Team” figure skating competition, Lipnitskaia lifted the Russians beyond the reach of powerful rivals like Canada and the United States. The addition of this new event worked for the host country, bringing Russia its first gold early in the Games. As a key member of Russia’s winning team, Yulia became the youngest gold medalist in figure skating for the past 78 years.

After Russia won the team skating competition it was reported that an official turned to Putin and said: “Congratulations now you have beaten Obama by 15 points,” referring to the margin that separated the gold-medalist Russian team from the bronze-medalists on the American team. Perhaps a more diplomatic way to make this point would be to have Lipnitskaia skate to the music from the James Bond film, “From Russia with Love.” She may well turn out to be her country’s best political messenger.

Olympic swimming champion and sports broadcaster Donna de Varona is reporting for Variety on the scene in Sochi. She has attended every Olympic Games since 1960, with the exception of the 1980 Moscow games.