TURIN, Italy -- The judges for the Winter Olympics women's figure skating competition got it right. What fun is that?

Of course, there was hardly any way they could have gotten it wrong after yesterday's long program. Not even the French judge would have dared try to fix this one.

Skaters have complained that the ice at the Palavela is soft, but that was a good thing in this case. Considering how many of them fell on it, someone could have been seriously injured.

The winner: the only one standing.

That would be Japan's Shizuka Arakawa.

I hope that Arakawa is remembered for more than just staying upright.

Her performance wasn't as inspiring as those by some recent Olympic champions such as Oksana Baiul, Tara Lipinski or Sarah Hughes. She was conservative technically, turning her two planned triple-triple combinations into triple-doubles. But she was beautiful to watch, in command of Puccini's "Turandot." Vincero. Vincero. "I shall win. I shall win." And she did.

But her overwhelming victory in the end had less to do with how well she skated than how well the United States' Sasha Cohen and Russia's Irina Slutskaya didn't.

Start with Slutskaya, the favorite. She was the last one to skate and knew exactly what she needed to win. She didn't do it. She planned a triple lutz-double loop combination as her opening element, but dropped the double loop. Another triple-double combination turned into a double-double. She fell on a triple loop.

It was a surprisingly pedestrian performance for a two-time world champion, 27 years old. Now, she almost certainly ends her Olympic career with the same medals as Michelle Kwan, a silver and a bronze.

The silver here went to Cohen, who later called it "a gift."

Not really. Cohen, 21, skated brilliantly for three minutes. Unfortunately for her, they were the final three of her four-minute program.

She is almost Garboesque in the mystery that she wraps around herself. With no explanation, she chose not to attend either of her scheduled practices Wednesday, the day after she had won the short program, sending word that she was tired. Reports of a groin injury were denied by her coach and by her when she finally did revisit the ice for a practice yesterday morning.

But she fell twice in her warm-up before the final group of six skated their long programs and looked frightened, like a novice instead of the reigning U.S. champion. Nerves? Injuries?

Her night would get worse before it got better. She fell on the front end, the triple lutz, of her opening combination, then almost fell on her triple flip. But just as it seemed the crowd was about to witness a spectacular fall from grace, she began skating like, well, Sasha Cohen.

She inserted a combination she hadn't planned, a triple flip-double toe, then landed her next triple-triple.

More important was her expressiveness, her feel for the music from Romeo and Juliet. The judges gave her marks second only to Arakawa for artistry and the best marks for interpretation.

"It just wasn't my night," Cohen said. But only for one minute.

No one else really stood out. Almost 10 points separated first from third place. There were six more points between third and fourth.

After finishing fifth in the short program, Kimmie Meissner of Bel Air dropped a place to sixth. The other American, Emily Hughes, remained in seventh.

All in all, that's not bad for two teenagers with little international experience at the senior level. Meissner is 16, Hughes 17.

Under almost no circumstances would Meissner have contended for a medal. The first three were on another level, even with Cohen and Slutskaya at less than their best.

But Meissner certainly had no hope after failing to land either triple-triple combination early in her program. She needs the jumps to give her an edge because she's still not fluid enough in her step sequences and transitions to score style points.

That will give her something to work on for 2010.


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