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Thin ice: Skating is even tougher to figure

TURIN, Italy -- Welcome to the Winter Olympics, or, as we say in the US of A, ''They do what?"

Yes, we know. You're not exactly involved in a Biathlon Fantasy League. Too bad. You never know when you'll be out on a nice, little, cross-country jaunt and suddenly need to drop down and start firing away with your .22-caliber small-bore rifle at some targets 50 meters away. So you and your mates might not be hovering around the set Saturday to see if Norway's Ole Einar Bjoerndalen can duplicate his Salt Lake City feat of winning all four events in a sport that, according to a survey conducted at the 2002 Olympics, produces more sweat per contestant, male or female, than any Winter Olympic discipline.

(Armed with this bit of knowledge, you might reconsider how you'll be spending Saturday, after all.) Oh, as you might suspect, if an American finishes in the top 20 there will be an impromptu champagne party at the USOC headquarters.

OK, so we're not a biathlon behemoth. But we do have our charms, and in the most recent Winter Olympics we had 34 competitors stride to the podium (that means finishing first, second, or third, for those new to international terminology). That was the best the United States has done in the Winter Games, and that's going to be tough to match here since the home team almost invariably adds a few surprise medals to its total.

The marquee sport as far as American television audiences is concerned is female figure skating. Nothing will top the Nancy Kerrigan-Tonya Harding follies of 1994, of course. Their confrontation in Lillehammer remains one of the top-rated television programs of all time. But even if there is no such extracurricular event among the competitors, figure skating has managed to distinguish itself as a prime headline-grabber. Last time out it was French judge Marie-Reine Le Gougne who became a household name when she was charged with helping to fix the pairs competition in favor of Russians Yelena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze at the expense of Canadians Jamie Sale and David Pelletier. It was a cause celebre of immense proportions, and it led to: A.) the awarding of a pair of golds for the Canadians, and B.) the complete retooling of the entire ice skating judging system.

In case you haven't heard, gone is the old system with a perfect score of 6.0 and the open judging that gave rise to a billion American jokes in which the phrase ''East German judge" was part of the punch line. In its place is an impenetrable system in which scores are accumulated by the execution of moves and movements. There are 12 judges, nine of whose scores will be selected by computer, after which two of those, the highest and lowest scores, will be eliminated. And have I mentioned the ''presentation" aspect of the judging has been broken into five distinct categories?

A badly flawed, but understandable system has been replaced by an even more highly flawed, incomprehensible system that requires judges to be looking at, and writing down (or pushing buttons, or whatever), so many things that it's even-money some harassed judge will suffer a nervous breakdown in the middle of Michelle Kwan's routine.

Again, in case you haven't heard, Kwan is back for the third time, still trying to get that elusive gold medal. Now 25, she has returned on a Mission of Mercy, for she did not qualify for the team by performance in the Nationals. She demonstrated to a panel of five judges she was fit and ready to compete in a closed-door session.

This is a textbook case of ''What goes around, comes around." For when Kerrigan had been rendered incapable of competing in the 1994 Nationals following the famed Big Whack, and was added to the team in a similar manner, it was the 13-year old Kwan who lost her deserved spot on the team to make room for Miss Kerrigan.

We all know that Kwan had to make this team. Given that she is easily the most recognizable person, male or female, on the team, NBC surely wanted her to get here. A number of sponsors surely wanted her to get here. And a still-adoring American public wanted this always gracious, always elegant, skating icon to get here. And so she is here.

Just don't expect her to medal. If she does, there will be another impromptu champagne party at USOC headquarters.

In other areas, we are supposed to be loaded. There will be boo-hooing in USOC offices if ''The Star-Spangled Banner" doesn't become an annoyance at the Alpine skiing, speedskating, and snowboard venues. We're also supposed to do well in events where people fly through the air with skies on, or go bumpety-bump down a slope. There's even hope in the luge, where Tony Benshoof has been piling up World Cup points.

And then there's Bode.

If you don't have any idea who Bode Miller is by now, you really haven't been paying attention. Funny how you can win a couple of silver medals four years ago and then go about your business -- including winning the World Cup title last year -- and still you're on the backburner of American sports consciousness. But go on ''60 Minutes" and talk about the challenge of skiing under the influence . . . boy, does that get people's attention. Or cavalierly, without qualification, say what everyone is thinking in both the United States (on the subject of Barry Bonds) and Europe (on the subject of Lance Armstrong), and you knock Brangelina right out of the gossip page headlines.

The truth is no one knows just how ready Miller is for these Olympics. Bode appears to be a bit, shall we say, conflicted (the Franconia in him is having trouble with Celebrity), and he has a bad knee on top of it. But Bode could ski right off the downhill and slalom courses and the US team could still get a gold because Daron Rahlves has been at the top of his game all winter long.

Neither one is an Ole Einar Bjoerndalen, but, hey, we Americans are doing the best we can under the circumstances.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is

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