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Ito starts Japan's day with a silver lining


TOKYO -- When the Albertville Olympics opened, Japan was putting a formidable burden onto Midori Ito's 4-foot-9 frame.

Sportswriters said over and over that the 97-pound, 22-year-old figure skating sensation was this country's best hope to break two embarrassing barriers -- its first Winter Olympics gold medal in 20 years and its first Winter Olympics medal for a woman.

"Ito Back in High-flying Form," a Yomiuri newspaper headline exulted in the lead article of its "Winter Olympics Preview" page.

By the time she set out to skate for a medal Friday, the picture was far brighter for Japan but far darker for Ito.

A little-heralded Nordic combined ski team had unexpectedly broken the gold-medal barrier. Seiko Hashimoto, a 27-year-old third-time Olympic speed skater who was scarcely mentioned as a contender, had broken the women's medal barrier with a bronze.

Altogether, Japan already had its best Winter Olympics medal harvest -- a gold, a silver and three bronzes -- even before the women's figure skaters took the ice for their free-skating programs.

But Wednesday, Ito had fallen, literally, to a disappointing fourth-place position with a pratfall in her original program.

By the time she skated Friday, the question was whether she could fight back to win any medal.

Still, the glamour of figure skating, the fame of Japan's best-known 1992 Winter Olympian and the drama of Ito's 17-year quest had millions of television sets across Japan tuned in by 6 a.m. yesterday Tokyo time to see her final performance in Albertville.

Many watched over breakfast of what is merely the sixth working day in the weeks of most Japanese.

Ito rewarded her early-rising home-country viewers by courageously overcoming another early fall to skate an electrifying silver-medal performance.

What they saw was the first perfect triple Axel in the history of women's Olympic figures, the highest medal a Japanese woman has won in the Winter Olympics and the first Olympic figure-skating medal for any Japanese.

And one more thing. The biggest of all, in the eyes of many Japanese.

"She beat the choke factor," a visibly emotional Mitsuya Furuya, night assistant manager at a midtown Tokyo hotel, said as a beaming Ito came off the ice, before seeing the judges' scores that put her in the medals.

Millions of Japanese blame the "choke factor" -- a cultural tendency to tense up at the critical moment -- for the fact that the country with the world's No. 2 economy and No. 1 reputation for self-discipline has for so long had so little to show in the Olympics and scarcely anything to show in the Winter Olympics.

It was the "choke factor" that was on everyone's lips here after Wednesday's fall in the original program.

She had "choked" in her official practices and failed to execute a single triple Axel, sportscasters and commentators said. Her coach had "choked" and had her jump the less-demanding triple Lutz in the original program, only to see her fall even on that.

Interviewed on Japanese television after triumphantly skating her way back to the silver, Ito didn't wait for the question. She went straight to an explanation of how she beat the "choke factor."

"I made some early mistakes and didn't do well the first time I tried the triple Axel," she said. She had the choice of trying an easier jump later in her routine, but she wouldn't have felt right even if she had done an easier jump perfectly.

It has not been lost on audiences here that Ito's chief rival, Kristi Yamaguchi, the American who overwhelmingly won the gold, also has a Japanese heritage.

But news writers and Olympics TV coverage also take full advantage of the subtleties of the written Japanese language to underscore who is skating under the Hinomaru flag and who is skating under the Stars and Stripes.

Yamaguchi is a common Japanese name, capable of being written in kanji, the full form of the characters Japan borrowed from China centuries ago.

But the Japanese-American gold-medal winner's name is invariably spelled out, Ya-ma-gu-chi, in katakana, the syllabary form that is used for foreign words and names.

"Yes, of course that makes me proud, too -- a little bit," Furuya said of Yamaguchi's Japanese heritage. "But Japanese people feel that most Japanese-Americans are more American than they are Japanese."

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