LILLEHAMMER, Norway — One at a time, the medalists peeked out from behind the stage, like children looking for their mothers after the school play. First the teenager from China, who waved and smiled. Then the woman from America, who made a bored motion like, “Come on already.” Where was the gold medalist? The crowd buzzed impatiently. In the back, a 16-year- old Ukrainian, who was still feeling pain from an injection in her back, was weeping, half in agony, half in joy, while the people who run the medal ceremonies were scampering around in a desperate search.

“We found it!” someone said, finally.

Her national anthem.

Good ending. Maybe the best. Oh, not for Americans, but you have to take a global view of these things. After all, these are the Olympics. The world at play, remember?

And as world stories go, the best one, Oksana Baiul, was up there at the end, with the gold medal around her neck. Sure, Nancy Kerrigan skated beautifully. Sure, she hit all her jumps — although she simplified one in midair. Sure, she has been dubbed America’s Victim, due her share of glory.

And sure, the Olympic Amphitheater was packed with Americans, who made it sound as if there were no other skaters, only Nancy. Our Nancy! These were the same people bitching on the way out that “some judge had it in for her,” that’s why she got the silver. Once again, we show the world our best face.

Nancy got robbed? Please. Let’s not dare start talking about lutzes and salchows and a tenth of a point here and artistic merit there. What are we, experts all of a sudden? The sum total of what anyone who isn’t in this sport can tell you about figure skating is this: Someone always gets screwed. That’s because it’s not a sport but a graded exhibition. There are no finish lines. Only what the judges see, think and score. You accept that going in. Otherwise, run track.

“Did you think the medals were awarded correctly?” someone asked Chen Lu, the bronze medalist.

“The judges don’t award marks casually,” she said. “Yes, I think they were correct.”

This was an honorable answer, but no one listened to it, not in the crowded press conference room late Friday night, where U.S. reporters were busy interviewing Nancy’s coach, Nancy’s agent, Nancy’s buddy, Paul Wylie, all of whom echoed Wylie’s sentiment that “the decision was wrong.”

Prove it. The difference between Kerrigan and Baiul was so thin, you couldn’t fit a skate blade between them. But instead of griping about the results, take a look look at the big picture here.

Trust me. It’s a perfect ending. Choreographed dignity

Start with Kerrigan, who seven weeks ago took a club to the right knee from an assailant in Detroit. Her life has been upside down ever since.

“I don’t think I’ll ever be able to go through what I did these last two months,” she admitted Friday after skating. No one should have to. She handled herself, for the most part, with dignity and silence, much of it well-choreographed by her agents, who are with her all the time now.

But let’s be honest. Because of what happened to her, she also came to these Olympics more financially secure than maybe any other skater in American

history. She had a million-dollar deal with Disney for a movie, a book, an ice show. That was all waiting for her — even if she fell on her butt. There were pros and cons for Kerrigan in this mess. That was a pro.

So was this: She found a champion’s toughness. For the first time in her career, she finished a long program in a major competition with no mistakes. Skating to Neil Diamond music — we’ll overlook that — she landed eight jumps, five of them triples. She looked good. She smiled.

More important: She discovered that, when pushed, she has the grit of a winner. Long after these Games are over, that will serve her most well.

And in a funny way, she might never have learned it had that attack not happened. Life is strange.

Nancy Kerrigan will be just fine.

Now let’s take the winner, Oksana Baiul. You think Kerrigan has a movie? Disney ought to negotiate this one right now.

Go back just a few years on Baiul’s life chart and you’ll find a skinny orphaned girl with rusting skate blades in a Ukrainian rink. Her mother died of cancer. Her grandmother died, too. Her father ran away. And, thanks to the crumbling of the Soviet Union, her coach bolted, in search of a better life. Oksana was 14, and didn’t have a soul. Of all the skaters in Friday’s competition — Kerrigan included –she had the right to yell, “Why me?”

She didn’t, because life is hard all over Eastern Europe, you deal with it, like Northerners deal with snowstorms. Baiul was “found” by Viktor Petrenko, the 1992 gold medalist in Albertville, who saw something not only in her skating, but in the way she lit up when he said she could have some of his fabric to sew an actual uniform. Ukraine, at the time, was a brand new country, maybe four ice rinks. Sometimes they were open, sometimes not.

From that, to this: Friday night, the Olympics. Just an hour before she went on, a doctor was sticking a needle in Baiul’s skinny back. The day before, she had collided with a German skater during practice, wrenching her back and slicing open her leg with a skate blade. Now, before the biggest stage in the world, the doctor was injecting her and restitching her wounds?

“Can I skate?” she asked.

Her coach said she wasn’t sure.

That she came out there anyhow, took center ice and dug into her happy little program, well, folks, that’s a hell of a performance. If she were American, she would have her own TV show by now.

Baiul played coy, cute, showy, even a little sexy, as she skated to a medley of American show tunes. She hit all but one of her jumps cleanly, like Kerrigan, but toward the end, she changed one, a triple to a double. “In my mind, I thought I lost the gold medal,” she would say. But rather than give up easily, she threw in an extra jump at the end, hoping to compensate.

She got technical marks from the judges ranging from 5.6 (Canadian) to 5.9
(Chinese) and all 5.8s and 5.9s for artistic merit.

Kerrigan, by contrast, scored no lower than 5.7 in technical, but no higher than 5.8, while earning basically identical marks as Baiul for artistry.

The difference between the two, if you added it up, was one judge. Five had Baiul first, four had Kerrigan.

Now. You want me to explain to you why Baiul got a 5.9 from someone and Kerrigan got a 5.8? For artistic? I can’t. You can’t. CBS can’t. How do you compare Neil Diamond to Marvin Hamlisch. Kerrigan’s marks counted. Baiul’s counted. So be it. The world has seen enough bad American losers.

There’s no shame in a silver medal. A mixed-up trailer kid

Tonya Harding would have taken it. Oh, yes, we can’t leave her out. In the evening’s weirdest moment, she emerged with six seconds to go on the clock, started skating, floated through her first jump and began to cry. She stopped, went to the judges and said she had ripped a lace. Could she do her Olympics again?

At this moment, with her music still playing, the crowd hooting and tears coming down her face, she was as pathetic as possible: a screwy, mixed-up trailer kid who may or may not have conned her way into these Olympics, and who suddenly realized she was as unprepared as a student without homework.

That she returned, four skaters later, and did a complete but rather uninspired program was almost after-the-fact. Her skating off the ice, yelling
“Open that door,” telling her confused coaches “it’s no good” and stalking back into the tunnel was so odd, so jolting, and so sad, it could only be Tonya Harding.

She finished eighth, and slinks off the page now, back to America, where the courts await. What will become of her is anyone’s guess. Oddly, she seemed most defined here by her skating music. On Wednesday, it was “Much Ado About Nothing.” On Friday, she did “Jurassic Park” a movie about dinosaurs.

Perhaps she sensed her own extinction.

Bring the curtain down. So ends the most prolonged and ludicrous soap opera ever to prelude a Winter Games. Years from now, we might be ashamed at the attention we gave this story. Perhaps we won’t believe we did it. But more people watched this skating competition than watched almost anything else in the history of television.

How fitting then, that it wound down with this scene: the American press noisily interviewing each other, convincing themselves of Kerrigan’s victimization, while the few Ukrainian reporters — whose national anthem was so new it was hard to find — struggled to hear their gold medalist speak.

“Oksana, is there anything that you want now that you’ve won the gold medal?”

The question was translated, and she smiled from the heart, the smile of a child, the smile that, in the end, might have won her the Olympics.

“Yes,” she answered, barely audible over the noise. “A Snickers bar.”

Perfect. Absolutely perfect.

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