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Hot ticket or cold shoulder?


TURIN, Italy -- Slovenian snowboarder Rok Flander was heading out to a hockey game with his teammates last night, but only because he couldn't get tickets to figure skating.

"I like figure skating a lot," he said. "It's a nice sport. They have beautiful, nice girls."

His buddies chuckled. Snowboarders.

In fact, the buzz - or lack of it - inside the athletes' village mirrors the attitude back home as evidenced by TV ratings, which peaked during the Nancy Kerrigan-Tonya Harding saga but have steadily lost their muscle. The glut of choices on TV is often blamed for the decline, as are other skating events that obscure what has always been the most special - the Olympics.

The women's long program is still NBC's biggest night at the Games, but while those at home considered their vast options last night, those inside the village did the same. They played video games, ate, talked, danced and watched a variety of live and taped events on the closed-circuit monitors.

"I think all the sports are everyone's favorites," said American speed skater Kip Carpenter. "Even sports like curling, where you need a certain skill but it's not physically demanding, people are really getting into it. The [U.S.] men got into the medals round and everyone was really excited and super supportive."

Carpenter, whose sport received a disproportionate amount of attention these Olympics because of the drama surrounding the conflict between Shani Davis and Chad Hedrick, acknowledges that figure skating will always have a certain advantage over the other sports.

"From a corporate standpoint, figure skating is more popular because there's a bigger element of glamour, and figure skaters can appeal to a wider market than speed skaters can," he said. "Sasha Cohen can endorse everything from watches to exercise equipment.

"But I wouldn't say we're jealous because when you become a speed skater, you don't do it for the money, you do it for the love and passion of the sport and to go for the Olympic gold."

Carpenter pointed out that U.S. speed skaters had accounted for seven medals and that Davis vs. Hedrick also fueled attention back home. "Good or bad, it's still exposure," he said. "Maybe one day, we'll get more corporate support."

Despite growing indifference, as usual the women's long was still the hottest ticket of the Games and Carpenter, excited he had snagged one at a dinner with Dow Chemical executives, was on his way there, albeit two hours after it started. That made some sense considering the medals contenders were the last to compete.

Caitlin Cahow, a member of the U.S. bronze-medal hockey team, said she and her teammates were "absolutely mesmerized" by the pairs figure skaters and ice dancers, athletes with whom they share a training room.

"The secret is out, though we don't talk about it too much," Cahow said of their interest in figure skating. "All of us started as figure skaters. And it's cool for us hockey players to see. We couldn't believe that Chinese pairs team. That woman [Zhang Dan, who fell hard trying to complete a jump] was tough as nails. ... The all-around strength and courage that it took to continue, we were all saying, 'I wouldn't do it.' We were impressed."

Nevertheless, Cahow and her teammates were not all that interested in the women's long program, choosing instead to go out for dinner.

They may have had a change of heart had they seen Turkey's Tugba Karademir compete last night. The first Turkish figure skater ever to compete in the Olympics, the 20-year-old finished 21st, blowing kisses and waving her nation's flags to fans after completing her program.

"Coming from the States, they have so much pressure to win gold, and that's why they get the big bucks and all the advertising," Karademir said. "I don't get the big bucks. I don't get any advertising. I don't care about that. I just want to be here and feel that I sort of belong, which in my mind was if I made it to the long program [five were cut after the short].

"I almost didn't make it so I was all upset. But even when I was all upset, I was thinking, 'Even if I didn't make it, I was here.' Who knows if I will ever get this chance again, so I'm just really grateful."

No word yet on the TV ratings in Turkey last night.

Melissa Isaacson writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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