Winter Olympics: Rivalry on Ice, the dream show

Remember Kerrigan v Harding? Mike Rowbottom samples the new soap, Lipinski v Kwan
THE CBS satellite dish parked in the grounds of the ancient Zenkoji temple, in Nagano, testifies to the commercial power of the XVIII Winter Olympics. The American TV network paid $375m for the exclusive rights to show the Games Stateside - and they were happy to do so after the soaring ratings generated by the 1994 Lillehammer Games.

An estimated 120 million viewers - still the largest American TV audience behind three Super Bowl figures - tuned in to watch the dramatic ice skating confrontation between Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding, who was later implicated in a pre-Games attack on her rival.

The details of that tangled intrigue were brought back into public view through Friday's US screening of the first face-to-face interview between the two skaters. Thankfully, no iron bars have been aimed at athletes' knees in the lead-up to this year's figure skating programme. But the American media are massing once again for another huge story of Rivalry on Ice - this time involving two young US skaters who have both been world champions, 17-year-old Michelle Kwan, and 15-year-old Tara Lipinski.

When Kwan secured the world title in 1996, aged 15, many skating observers marked her down as the next Olympic champion. But the following year a 4ft 9in 14-year-old from Detroit arrived on the scene and jubilantly complicated the whole issue by relieving Kwan of both her national and world titles, becoming the youngest ever champion.

Lipinski's startling success stemmed partly from Kwan's sudden collapse in form and partly from her own acrobatic - some said robotic - ability. With seven triple jumps, Lipinski has the most technically demanding routine in the world. But there was a critical backlash, as fears were voiced that ice skating was in danger of going down the route gymnastics had followed towards domination by super-tots. "About a second after they crowned her," one experienced American observer said, "the judges wanted to take it back."

The scene was set perfectly for the Olympic season. And last month in Philadelphia Kwan regained the initiative by recovering her US title from Lipinski with a sublimely graceful performance which earned her a maximum 6.0 for artistic merit in 15 out of 18 marks. Lipinski, meanwhile, tumbled out of contention with a rare fall while attempting a triple flip.

Kwan's performance had the skating establishment swooning. "It will be remembered forever," said Brian Boitano, the 1988 Olympic champion. Kwan herself was suitably inspired verbally. "I don't see myself winning," she said afterwards. "I see myself flying."

So now America - and the sporting world - has its dramatic conflict. Kwan, dark and graceful, a Lyudmila Tourischeva to Lipinski's blonde and peppy Olga Korbut. The rivalry has been discussed in depth on David Letterman's TV show. "We both represent the same country," Kwan said. "We're both world champions. Why not build it all up?"

Competition has extended to the bookshelves, where their ghost-written autobiographies appeared almost simultaneously. The titles scored poor marks for either originality or artistry - Kwan's was "Heart of a Champion", Lipinski's was "Triumph on Ice". While Kwan basked in adoration after the national championships, there was a feeling in the Lipinski camp that their girl was not being treated fairly; the judges appeared to be scrutinising her jumping technique more rigorously.

Here on Friday, Lipinski appeared determined to mount a charm offensive as she appeared with the bulk of the US figure skating team. Kwan and the third selected women's singles skater Nicole Bobek had delayed their arrival in Nagano as their competition starts on Wednesday week. But from the moment Lipinski smilingly twisted the microphone standing between herself and the US men's champion Todd Eldredge in her own direction, it was clear that she was eager to make the most of her media opportunity.

Her responses to a series of questions were remorselessly positive, again with low marks for originality or artistic impression. Her first impression of Nagano? It was awesome, and the people were wonderful. Her first practice session? It was just great, the legs felt good and the fact of being at the Olympics for the first time kept her pumped.

But the 15-year-old dealt deftly with an invitation to criticise Kwan for missing the opening ceremony. "Everyone has different schedules. For me I felt it was good to come here and enjoy the occasion because it would help me to relax, and I always skate better when I am relaxed."

Lipinski conceded that she arrived at the Games as the underdog. But she appeared happy with the position. "I like being the underdog," she said. "It gives me a lot more to think about." Did she accept that she would have to skate the performance of her life to beat Kwan after the latter's performance in Philadelphia? "I hope I do," she replied. "But I going out there to do a normal programme, not to try and be my best ever performance. After that, what happens, happens."

If Lipinski can show the same assurance on ice as she displays off it, what happens might well turn out to be the keynote contest of the XVIII Winter Games.