Winter Olympics: Lipinski's art makes lasting impression

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The Independent Online
AN all-American drama played itself out to an astonishing denouement in the women's figure skating final here last night. Michelle Kwan, the gold medal favourite and media darling, was the winner; but Tara Lipinski, the sequinned waif, was the winningest.

Looking on as the 15-year-old Lipinski took the title with an exuberant and almost faultless performance, one experienced American skating observer spoke for a nation. "Oh my God," he said. "Oh my God. Un. Believable."

After her sublime performance at last month's US Championships in Philadelphia, where she had recaptured her title from Lipinski, the 17-year-old Kwan arrived here as most people's choice for the title. It was widely assumed that, if she made no mistakes, the gold was hers.

As she left the ice last night, she was smiling broadly. The bouquets came bouncing onto the ice from all around the arena. Unlike in Philadelphia, where she had scored 15 maximum 6.0 marks, the judges were more conservative - she had nine out of nine 5.9s for artistic impression, but her technical merit marks were a little down - four 5.8s and five 5.7s.

Nevertheless, as she left the arena, it seemed she had done enough to realise the goal to which she has dedicated herself for so many years. Lipinski, who succeeded Kwan as world champion last year, had fallen in the US championships. But this time she was unfaltering - radiant, even. As she registered each jump and combination, her face broke into an expression of delight.

In the past, she has been criticised for being a robotic acrobat without artistic merit. Last night her performance had, if not the grace of Kwan, then an expression of real emotion. At the end of her performance, she careered into the centre of the arena like a kid racing to open her Christmas presents, shaking her fists in triumph.

Back in the kiss and tell section, her expression as the first line of judges' marks, for technical merit, came up, was momentarily one of terror. They were significantly better than Kwan's - six 5.9s, three 5.8s - and it was as if the enormity of what she was about to have confirmed suddenly hit her.

The next row of figures for artistic impression - four 5.9s, five 5.8s - and a 6-3 split decision in her favour installed her as the youngest individual gold medallist in Winter Games history. She is 60 days younger than Sonja Heine was when she won this title in 1928.

"I didn't think about winning, or about beating anybody,' Lipinski said. "I just didn't want to come off the ice disappointed. I don't remember running at the end. I was just so happy at the time, because it was the Olympics, and I had skated great."

Coming into last night's free programme in second place after Wednesday's short programme had worked in her favour. "I always like to be the underdog," she said. "I was very motivated."

Kwan said she had come off the ice happy with her own performance, but accepted that it had not matched her inspirational effort at last month's national championships. "In Philadelphia I was more free, I was flying," she said. "Tonight I was more cautious. I took my time and did one thing at a time. It seemed like I was in my own world, like I didn't open up and really let go.

In contrast, Lipinski emoted from the start. "It was one of the best performances I have ever given, both technically and emotionally," she said. Kwan did not contest the award of the title - but then she had not seen Lipinski skating, choosing to talk to her mother instead.

"There was disappointment when I saw Tara's marks," she said. "And a few tears. But I'm going to keep fighting. I'll be at the 2002 Olympics, so there is one more shot. I will only be 21 - who knows? But I think I can walk away from her happy. Because - c'est la vie, right? However hard you work, you cannot guarantee you are going to win gold. The medal isn't the colour I wanted, but I'll take it."

The spectacle was likely to have been a gold medal one as far as the US TV rights holders to the Games, CBS, were concerned. After seeing the US and Canada drop out of contention for tomorrow's ice hockey final, they needed all the ratings they could get.

When Lipinski was just two years old, her father, Jack, recalled last night, she watched the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles on TV. Seeing a medal ceremony, she took a copperware bowl, turned it upside down and stood on top of it. "She asked her mum for flowers and a ribbon," Jack Lipinski said, "She didn't know there was a medal."