HAMAR, Norway -- They have the best seats in the arena.
They are poised on risers above the dasher boards. They are armed with pads, papers and computer terminals. And they make decisions that lead to triumph or heartbreak.
These are the skating judges, men and women whose subjective views are translated into hard numbers.
And tonight, when Nancy Kerrigan meets Tonya Harding and 25 other skaters in the women's technical program at the Winter Olympics, the nine judges will be on trial.
Can they fairly judge Harding, who was implicated in the plot to injure Kerrigan?
"You bet," said Claire Ferguson, president of the U.S. Figure Skating Association. "You have to put everything out of your mind and concentrate on just skating. It has to be done. And it will be."
But just to make sure the nine-member panel is not influenced by events outside the arena, International Skating Union officials called the group together yesterday. And the judges were told -- specifically in the case of Harding -- to judge the skating and not the skater's alleged misdeeds.
"There are so many people looking at the judging," said Scott Hamilton, the 1984 Olympic men's champion. "The judges will concentrate on putting out the marks. It will be the best-judged event ever."
Figure skating judging has always been filled with tales of political deal-making and conflicts of interest.
During the height of the Cold War in the 1960s and early 1970s, judging scandals were common, as those from the East and West blocs lined up into different camps.
Even at these Olympics, the judges have been embroiled in brush-fire controversies: the demotion from first to third of British ice dancers Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean and a tough call in the pairs competition.
"The whole sport is in the eye of the beholder," said Ben Wright, a former member of the ISU's technical committee. "We have gone a long way to improve judging," he said. "The sport is in evolution. It changes. And so do the judges."
The judges are the sport's ultimate amateurs, volunteers who earn only 500 Swiss francs (about $350) a competition for expenses.
The composition of the international panels is based on the results from the previous year's World Championships. The top 10 nations in each of the events earn their countries' judging slots. One nation is then eliminated by lot, leaving the nine-member juries.
There is an interesting cast set to judge the women.
Ukraine's Alfred Korytek has links to skater Oksana Baiul -- his son was the 16-year-old phenom's first coach.
And Germany's Jan Hoffman was taught by Jutta Muller, who now coaches Katarina Witt.
The United States is represented by Margaret A. Wier.
"Of course they can judge this event," said Charles A. DeMore, a U.S. member on the ISU technical committee. "When you judge, you put aside all of your past references. You judge what you see on the ice."
The judges punch up their computers and provide marks for technical merit and artistry on a scale of 0 to 6. They are looking for more than beauty. They may not admit it, but they do count the jumps, they closely observe the edge of the skater's blades on ice and they gauge style.
"They are trained to do a job," DeMore said.
In Norway, the judges have consistently favored the classical, balletic skaters, over the jumpers. If that form holds true, then a skater like Kerrigan, whose reputation is built on her graceful lines, has an advantage over the more athletic Harding.
But if either falls or slips in the technical program, their gold-medal hopes will vanish.
"There are eight or 10 skaters who can win this event," Hamilton said.
Including Harding, who has been implicated by her ex-husband in a scandal that has rocked the sport.
Can the judges be fair?
"They have to," said Canadian coach Louis Stong. "Tonya Harding is just a skater. She is going to do the skating tricks. If she does them, you mark her up. If she doesn't, you mark her down. The judges have to do that. And they will."
%Wendy Utley, Great Britain
Jan Olesinski, Poland
Jarmila Portova, Czech Republic
Alfred Korytek, Ukraine
Jiasheng Yang, China
Margaret Wier, USA
Noriko Shirota, Japan
Audrey Williams, Canada
Jan Hoffman, Germany
Referee: Britta Lindgren, Sweden
Assistant referee: Gerhardt Bubnik, Austria
How national allocation of judges is determined
A pool of 10 countries was created according to the results of the women's event at the 1993 World Championships. No country can have more than one judge, even if it had more than one skater in the top 10. From the 10, a blind draw was held for the nine Olympic positions.
How judges are selected
Each judge first worked his or her way up to national judge, which takes up to 10 years in the United States. After that, a person who judges two national championships in a three-year period can be nominated by his or her country to be an international competition judge, of which there are a fixed number worldwide. After three years at that level, the judge can be nominated to take the examination as an international championship judge, able to judge events such as the Olympics and World Championships. There are also a fixed number of championship judges. An international championship judge must stop judging after age 70.