VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Twenty four women dolled up in sequins and heavy makeup competed for Olympic figure skating medals on Thursday night, but most of them were off the ice long before things got really tense. The glamour night of the Games was billed as a two-skater showdown between elegant world champion Kim Yu-Na of South Korea and sensational jumper Mao Asada of Japan, a former world champion.
They were born 20 days apart, and have been rivals since their days in juniors. The geo-political strain between their home countries only made the competition more interesting.
Toss in sentimental favorite Joannie Rochette, a Canadian small-town girl skating four days after her mother died of a heart attack here, and it shaped up to be quite the evening at Pacific Coliseum.
Kim prevailed with a dominating program to win the gold medal, with Asada taking the silver and Rochette an emotional bronze.
As if scripted by television executives, Asada skated immediately after Kim, knowing precisely the score she'd need to beat — an eye-popping 228.56 points. "Queen Kim", as she is known back home, nailed her triple lutz-triple toe loop combination. She did not fall on her triple flip, as she did at Skate America in November. Dressed in cobalt blue, she performed a breathtaking routine to Gershwin's upbeat "Concerto in F," not only hitting all her jumps, but doing it with a grace that put her in a class of her own.
She was jubilant in the kiss-and-cry area as her score was shown.
Asada, who planned two triple axels in her program, could not afford to be conservative after Kim's performance. She had to throw it all out there. The pressure was on. Dressed in red and black and skating to Rachmaninov's dramatic and dark "Bells of Moscow," she looked confident in her first triple axel, and her spirals were beautiful, but she failed to complete two other jumps and wound up with 205.50 points, not enough to catch Kim.
"There's a little pay back here because Kim Yu-Na had to skate after Mao Asada in the short program and Mao just threw it down," said NBC commentator Scott Hamilton. "Kim gets to put the pressure on her and Mao's going to have to hit both of her triple axels to have any chance to get enough points to compete with her technically. Artistically is where Kim Yu-Na separates herself from the field. Mao is going to have to be absolutely flawless tonight technically to have any chance to overtake her."
And she wasn't.
That opened up the door for Rochette, who got a deafening welcome as she stepped on the ice, and after she completed her mistake-free program. Fans could be seen wiping tears from their eyes as she awaited her marks.
She scored 202.64, earning a bronze medal.
"It's so compelling and so heart wrenching, because we all refer it to ourselves in some way and make it personal," NBC commentator Sandra Bezic said. "We wonder where we would find that kind of strength within ourselves, or whether we even have that. For her to show that to us was an extraordinary gift."
Kim and Asada were under tremendous pressure, swarmed by reporters everywhere they went from the moment they arrived at the airport. Asada is enormously popular in Japan, and among the local Japanese community. A hot dog vendor in downtown who sells JapaDogs — hot dogs with Japanese condiments — has a special Kobe beef frank called The Mao Asada, in honor of the skater. It is sliced three times, an homage to her triple axel.
According to reports from Japan, the Asada vs. Kim saga was getting more media coverage than Toyota chairman Akio Toyoda's appearance on Capitol Hill over the auto recall.
Kim is even more of a celebrity, as the first figure skater from her country to be an Olympic gold-medal favorite. Even before winning a medal, Kim was already reportedly pulling in $5 million in endorsements, and often requires a bodyguard. Thursday's competition was aired around lunchtime back in Korea, and the government and businesses were expected to take a four-minute break for the occasion.
"For me what is most fascinating is the kind of pressure Kim is under, because she alone is carrying the pressure of her entire nation on her shoulders," said Bezic. "She lives with that everyday and trains with that everyday. I can't imagine waking up and being herknowing what she has to do. Anything less than gold will be a failure."
NBC commentator Dick Button said of Kim: "Not only is she wonderfully athletic, but is also elegant and easy to watch."
The crowd cheered wildly as the ice resurfacing machine cleaned the ice for the final group, setting the stage for the tense final half-hour of competition.
The three compelling storylines were sandwiched between the performances of upstart Americans, 17-year-old Rachael Flatt and 16-year-old Mirai Nagasu, both in striking distance of a medal. Flatt, a disciplined point-accumulating skater, entered the night in fifth place, and was the first to skate in the final group of six.
Nagasu, incredulous to be in sixth place after the short program, skated last.
Flatt, in a red dress, was first on the ice. Hamilton had said earlier Thursday that the two Americans would "come out swinging," and Flatt did. She landed seven triple jumps, made no glaring errors, and was all smiles as she completed her scratch spin to end the program. Her smile diminished some when her scores were posted. Judges awarded her 117.85 points for her free skate, which gave her 182.49 total. Not enough for a medal.
The night began with the skaters few people see on television, but each has a unique story. There was Tugba Karademir, the first skater from Turkey to compete at an Olympics. Sixteen-year-old Sarah Hecken is the youngest member of the German Olympic team. Kiira Korpi's father coached the Finnish women's hockey team to bronze at the 1998 Olympics. And Ksenia Makarova of Russia is the daughter of 1984 Olympic bronze medalist pairs skaters Larisa Selezneva and Oleg Makarov.
Two of the biggest crowd pleasers were 16-year-old Kwak Min-Jung of South Korea and 24-year-old Akiko Suzuki of Japan. Jung, wearing braces and a huge smile, drew a roar of approval after her Les Miserables program. Suzuki's tale was among the most heartwarming of the night. A rising star eight years ago, she was forced to stop skating at age 16 because she suffered from eating disorder, anorexia nervosa. Inspired by 2006 gold medalist Shizuka Arakawa of Japan, Suzuki decided to make a comeback. Her West Side Story program was near-flawless, artistic and athletic, and after 14 skaters, she was in the lead with 181.44 points.
But the marquee Korean and Japanese skaters, Kim and Asada, would steal the show.