ALBERTVILLE, France — One jump. One jump. One jump. It plays on the mind like a sharpened skate blade dragged across the skin. 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 circles 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 the skater’s 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’d been the pace-setter, she was 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 landed clear across the ice. The triple axel! Only one other woman on the planet had pulled it off in competition, Tonya Harding, 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 opponents. “I wish I had long legs and was beautiful like the other girls,” Ito sighed not long ago, as if looking though 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. All Ito had to do at these Olympics 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 all too much. Women are rarely as exalted as men in Japanese society, but Ito would be different, the first Asian world champion in figure skating, maybe soon an Olympic gold medalist? She had even been granted an audience with Emperor Akihito, an honor usually reserved for sumo wrestlers. All of 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, yes, the triple lutz. The triple lutz? She had traded in her bombshell for a pop gun. “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.”
Shorty after 10 o’clock, it happened again. Ito skated out, the music swirled, she lifted off — and splat! Down she went, flat on the ice, 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? She wanted it back. She wanted it over. They tell you to keep smiling in this sport but she couldn’t smile, not anymore. All Midori Ito could do was try to skate through the rest of her program, like a driver trying to steer his car after the radiator had exploded. 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 only be hers if two other skaters choked and Kristi Yamaguchi locked herself in the bathroom.
“KRISTI! OVER HERE!” the reporters yelled in the tunnel afterward. Yamaguchi smiled. She had skated flawlessly, a ballerina inside a music box. First place. Easy. Now she was ushered to an impromptu press conference, the All-America 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 Reebok sneakers and yellow warmup suit, stepped onto a bus and gazed blankly out the window. The Olympics are funny, they make you and they kill you. One jump, she was thinking, as the bus pulled away.