Linda Robertson

Linda Robertson: U.S. team is skating on thin ice

America is seeking an ice queen. She must have charisma, competitive fire behind a photogenic smile and really good balance.

Ashley Wagner, seeking to fill the throne once owned by U.S. figure skaters, managed to stay upright throughout her short program during the team competition Saturday at the Sochi Olympics. She even landed her unreliable triple-triple combination jump that she botched last month at U.S. championships.

“It was tough going out there after a disappointing nationals, so it was important for me to redeem myself,” Wagner said.

Yet even with a clean performance, Wagner’s score of 63.01 left her in fourth place, which doesn’t bode well for her in the glamour event of the Winter Olympics. When ladies singles is contested Feb. 19 and 20, defending Olympic gold medalist Kim Yu-Na of South Korea will be in a field that could leave Wagner and teammate Gracie Gold out in the cold.

Expect ample tears in the kiss-and-cry area when American skaters’ scores are announced during these Games. While Michigan’s Meryl Davis and Charlie White are favored to win in ice dancing, and the U.S. team might hold onto third place, U.S. pairs will be outclassed and, most humbling of all, U.S. men’s and women’s skaters face the prospect of being shut out of the medals for the first time since 1936.

Jeremy Abbott finished seventh in his short program in team competition, a poor indication of his chances of leapfrogging the top men and reclaiming the gold medal for the United States that Evan Lysacek won in 2010.

Although anything is possible in a sport where judges’ marks can be as slippery as the surface, the United States is considered podium-worthy only in dance, the least respected and least athletic of the disciplines. If neither Wagner nor Gold can wow savvy Russian spectators or impress judges inside the Ice Cube venue, figure skating could suffer another dip in popularity back home, where Dick Button and Dorothy Hamill are household names.

At the Winter Olympics, where the TV cameras fawn over a sport that combines grace, melodrama and conspicuous costumes, gold can be turned into fame for a lifetime. The United States boasts a long list of heroes, including Button, Scott Hamilton and Brian Boitano, and an even more stunning collection of female superstars, from Tenley Albright to Carol Heiss Jenkins, Peggy Fleming, Hamill, Debi Thomas, Kristi Yamaguchi, Tara Lipinsky, Sarah Hughes, Sasha Cohen and Michelle Kwan.

Figure skating riveted Americans to the screen in 1994, when its leading lady, Nancy Kerrigan, was whacked in the knee by the cohorts of its anti-princess, Tonya Harding, who grew up in a trailer park, trained at a shopping mall, smoked cigarettes and landed the first triple axel in women’s competition.

When Kerrigan and Harding skated in the short program at the Lillehammer Olympics, the telecast earned Super Bowl-like ratings.

Skategate spawned a boom decade for skating, with ice shows on TV almost every night and pro tours that grossed $50 million crisscrossing the country.

But oversaturation, the rise of Asian skaters and the lack of home-grown golden girls has hurt the sport’s profile. Falls were numerous and ratings were tepid for last month’s U.S. championships, when the U.S. Olympic team was chosen. Wagner made it on the strength of her resume even though she finished fourth and fell twice in her long program.

The United States had placed a woman on the Olympic podium 11 consecutive times until the 2010 Vancouver Games. There has not been an American woman on the world podium since 2006. At six Olympics between 1956 and 1976, U.S. women won gold four times. At four Olympics between 1992 and 2002, U.S. women won gold three times.

No one has emerged to succeed Kwan, who won nine national and five world titles from 1993 to 2006, although she never stood atop the Olympic medal stand. Tara Lipinski and Sarah Hughes were one-and-done after winning Olympic gold. Caroline Zhang, Naomi Nuri Nam, Rachel Flatt, Alissa Czisny and 2006 world champ Kimmie Meissner were among young heiresses who never quite panned out.

Since the 1998 Nagano Games, skating’s popularity in Asia has gone in the other direction, thanks to stars such as Japan’s Midori Ito, Shizuku Arakawa, Miki Ando and Mao Asada and South Korea’s Kim.

“I don’t know if it’s a decline in the U.S. as much as the sport has become truly global,” Hamilton said. “Other countries that have been good in the past but maybe not great are now churning out skaters faster than ever. It usually takes an iconic incredible champion to incite skating interest, and for Japan that skater was Ito.

“The U.S. has a lot of talent and the slump they are in right now will be short-lived.”

Charlie Cyr, a skating official for 40 years and an international championship judge, said the change in the world order is cyclical.

“There’s nothing wrong with our skaters but others haven risen to our level,” he said. “The U.S. has great depth. Coaching is better than ever. Technical skill has improved. Do we have another Michelle Kwan? No, but we don’t have another Carl Lewis or Mary Lou Retton either.”

Americans’ struggles stem from the 12-year-old scoring system, many skating experts argue. In the system, implemented in the wake of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics judging scandal, unidentified judges evaluate each skater’s program element by element and tabulate it into a point total. Technical specialists rule whether skaters complete their elements. In the old system, judges gave skaters two marks on the 6.0 scale, in essence ranking them.

Although skaters regard the new system as more equitable, critics say it emphasizes running up the score by cramming maneuvers and jumps into the time allotted. Technique is more important than artistry. Skaters with magnetic personalities, such as Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean, Katarina Witt and Kwan would have to amp up their level of difficulty to win under the new system.

“I would say that American skaters have always been groundbreaking and innovative,” Hamilton said. “This system creates a more apples-to-apples approach.”

Button uses “cookie-cutter” to describe the effect of the system on skaters’ routines.

“You can tell exactly what each skater is going to do as they rush through with so many flailing arm movements they look like drunken windmills,” said Button, whose new book, Push Dick’s Button, is a conversation about his decades in the sport. “What it is is a bowl of spaghetti that viewers can’t follow. Everyone could enjoy arguing about the 6.0s like they were umpire’s calls.

“Skating is theater, and they’re trying to turn it into a gymnastics meet. The system does not reward creativity, and that was the Americans’ strength.”

Cyr disagrees, saying skating outgrew the 6.0 system as skills increased.

“We still tick off the elements like we always did, but there are no more entitlements; you have to earn your points one by one,” he said. “It’s been adjusted to reward risk. An under-rotated quadruple jump used to be downgraded to the value of a triple. Now if it is under-rotated you still get 70 percent of the mark. So more quads are being done because it’s worth the attempt. It’s a more precise system.”

Hamilton is optimistic that Americans can master the system and foster a new generation of Olympic medalists.

“In the 1990s, there were Olympics back to back that created great success stories,” he said.

Davis and White, defending world champs, are projected to be the U.S. stars of Sochi. They skated an airy foxtrot and quickstep to I Could Have Danced All Night on Saturday, he in tails, she in a pink gown, and scored three points higher than their Canadian rivals.

Wagner’s outcome illustrated how much she has to overcome. She made no glaring mistakes in her sultry skate to Pink Floyd music.

But she finished nearly a point behind Asada, one of the medal favorites, even though Asada fell on her first jump.