AMERICAN WOMEN LOOK AS GOOD AS GOLDITO FORSAKES HER ADVANTAGE — AND LOSES HER EDGE, TOO

ALBERTVILLE, France — One jump. One jump. It plays on the mind. One jump. Gotta hit it. One jump. God, let me hit it! The audience can be clapping, the music blaring, filling the arena, violins and kettle drums cascading down to the ice, where the skater glides along in her sequined outfit, big smile, arms out, looking for all the world like Julie Andrews on the hill in “The Sound Of Music.” But in her mind there is only one sound, one voice, one screaming order from the storm trooper in the brain. One jump! One jump!

“Hit it! Hit it! Hit it! Hit it!”

Midori Ito had been thinking about one jump every day for the last thousand days, the jump they were all asking about, the jump that would take her higher and spin her faster and land her harder than all the others, the jump that had broken her leg and was pounding her ankles every day at practice, but the jump that was all worth it, for it would surely launch her into the highest corner of the judges’ notebooks, the stupendous, miraculous, gravity-defying triple axel. Four years ago, she became the first woman to land it in competition, and ever since she has been skating’s answer to Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier high above the Mojave desert.

The triple axel! She hit it so hard once that her earring flew off and skittered clear across the ice. The triple axel! Only one other woman on the planet, Tonya Harding, had pulled it off in competition, and she was shaky. The triple axel! With it, this little Japanese woman with the big thighs and the often pained expression could make up for all the elegance and beauty she surrendered to her Western rivals. “I wish I had long legs and was beautiful like the other girls,” Ito sighed not long ago, as if looking through a store window.

Ah, but with the triple axel, she could beat all that lipstick and makeup
— and maybe even crush the irresistible charm of her arch-rival, America’s Kristi Yamaguchi. It was the athlete versus the China dolls at these Winter Olympics. All Ito had to do was let fly and — kabong! — she could knock out the field. She could make history. Japan’s first figure skating medal ever. One jump.

“Hit it! Hit it! Hit it! Hit it!” A klutz on the lutz

She never hit it. She never tried it. What happened Wednesday night in the Olympic Ice Hall was the snapping of a finely tuned machine, the crushing of a young woman under the enormous pressure of national expectations. All of Japan had been behind Midori Ito in recent weeks, and sometimes on top of her
— “they expect me to win a gold medal; it is a lot of stress,” she had admitted — and maybe, finally, it was too much. Women are rarely as exalted as men in Japanese society, but Ito would be different. As the first Asian world champion in figure skating, she had even been granted an audience with Emperor Akihito, an honor usually reserved for sumo wrestlers. All Japan knew her by her first name.

That’s a lot of pressure on a 4-foot-7 frame, like hardened snow on a flimsy roof. And sometime Wednesday, before pulling on her black sequined skating costume, Midori Ito caved in. She panicked. She changed her mind. Forget the triple axel; she had been missing it in recent practices, losing confidence. Forget it; she would do the triple lutz instead. Yes, the triple lutz, an easier jump, a safer jump. The triple lutz? She had traded in her bombshell for a popgun. “I’ve seen last-second changes before,” Evy Scotvold, an American coach, would later say, “and usually, they wind up missing the easier jump, anyhow.”

On such moments do Olympics turn. Shortly after 10 o’clock, Ito skated out, looking less than confident. The music swirled, she lifted off — and splat! Down she went, flat on the ice — her very first jump — to a gasp that went all the way back to Tokyo. “There went the gold medal,” a TV announcer sniffed. That fast? All that work? They tell you to keep smiling in figure skating, but she couldn’t smile, not anymore. All Midori Ito could do was try to skate the rest of her program, like a driver trying to steer his car after a flat tire.

One jump. Another Olympic victim Figure skating is beautiful, but it can be cruel as jail. How long had Ito waited for these games? How much had she tried to please an entire nation? “I am sorry,” she had said afterward. She should have stayed with her original idea. But it was too late. The judges had spoken. She was in fourth place, and the gold medal could be hers only if two other skaters choked and Yamaguchi locked herself in the bathroom.

Ah, yes, Yamaguchi. The skating angel had played it safe, she had performed flawlessly, beautifully, a ballerina in a music box. The judges nodded. She was in first place. Now she was ushered to a press conference, the All-American kid in her red, white and blue jacket. She hugged her coach. She giggled. She said she couldn’t wait until Friday, the final program.

And outside, all alone, across the muddy gravel parking lot, Midori Ito, wearing sneakers and a yellow warm-up suit, stepped onto a bus and gazed blankly out the window, her dream all but shattered. The Olympics are funny, they make you and they kill you. And so fast, so fast. One jump, she was thinking, as the bus pulled away.

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