BROOKE GLADSTONE: If you know nothing else about the winter Olympics you know that 16 year old Sarah Hughes leaped up from 4th place to capture the gold. Figure skating is one of the most popular of the winter games, or at least the one the mos--or at least the one most fraught with emotion. One of the reasons is the way the media portray the competitors as characters in a melodrama. [PRINCESS MUSIC]
MALE ANNOUNCER: They are the princesses of figure skating. [DRAMATIC MUSIC] And tonight four women will take the ice looking to join that list of legends. A 23 year old Russian who re-discovered her love for the sport. Two teenagers looking to burst out of the shadows and into the spotlight. And one skating icon -- hoping to prove that she can win on her own terms.
DAVID WITTENSTEIN: Abigail Feder-Kane has frequently written on the subject of figure skaters and the media, and she says the drama fuels the passion for the sport.
ABIGAIL FEDER-KANE: It's important to remember that other than a group of very attached core audience members, most people don't follow skating very closely. So every 4 years they have to be given a reason to watch - a reason to care. And that's why I think these narratives, these stories that are constructed around the skating are as important and as fascinating to study as the events themselves.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So describe some of those narratives. What have we become accustomed to over the years.
ABIGAIL FEDER-KANE: I think for a long time the standard narrative was the conflict of the Cold War -- was East versus West. When the Eastern Bloc began to break down, the first big conflict that we got in ladies figure skating was the idea of athletes versus artists, and there was a period of time when the difficulty in the programs the women were doing was almost as difficult as what the men were doing. And there was a lot of discomfort with that. Should the women be doing these triple jumps? Would skating just become a jump fest? Was it losing its artistry and therefore losing its appeal?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is that why we had Nancy Kerrigan - graceful lady and Tonya Harding - athletic, aggressive -- what was the name? -- tough cookie they called her? [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
ABIGAIL FEDER-KANE: Absolutely. The "tough cookie," and long before 1994 and the famous whack on the knee -there was always a dichotomy set up between Kerrigan and Harding, and in fact between two other champions -- Kristi Yamaguchi [sp?] who won the gold in '92 and Medori Ito [sp?] of Japan. Ito and Harding had both performed the triple axle jump successfully in competition. They were the only two women who had done it. Kerrigan and Yamaguchi had not performed that jump although they each had their share of athleticism and performed plenty of triples. But it was just easier to set them up as the artists versus the athletes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There's another scenario I seem to remember; it's the up from adversity scenario. I remember a Ukrainian skater from about 8 years ago - Oksana Baiul - whose mother had died, whose life was so miserable--
ABIGAIL FEDER-KANE: The Baiul story is especially interesting because you may or may not remember, but that came on the tail end of the whole Nancy Kerrigan, Tonya Harding drama, so you had Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding going into these Olympics and not many people seemed to be paying much attention to the fact that Oksana Baiul was actually the reigning world champion! She had won the world championship in 1993. When you actually got to the Olympics and it became clear after the short program that Harding was not going to be in contention, then suddenly Baiul's story began to emerge, and lo and behold her overcoming-adversity story was a lot more touching and a lot more dramatic than Nancy Kerrigan's overcoming her knee injury. So in that case there was one narrative going into the games - the conflict narrative - the good girl/bad girl narrative. There was another narrative that emerged -- Nancy Kerrigan overcoming the adversity of her injury and there was a final narrative that became predominant -- Oksana Baiul overcoming the adversity of an entire life.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what have we seen in this Olympics? What story has prevailed or are we actually hearing bits of all of those scenarios?
ABIGAIL FEDER-KANE: Nobody seems to be able to decide what the best story is. There's a little bit of Cold War Redux here; the showdown between Russia's Irina Slutskaya [sp?] and American Michelle Kwan which is a longstanding rivalry and in fact in the Canadian and French papers that's the predominant story. The American media I think missed Tonya and Nancy to a large extent and was looking for a conflict - was looking for another bad girl, and for a few moments there in late January/early February it looked as if they had identified Sasha Cohen [sp?] as this villain. What was Sasha Cohen's crime? She had brushed up against Michelle a couple of times during practices. I think the story might have been taken further had there not been the scandal of the judging in the pairs competition. Finally there is the story which I think ended up predominating -- would Michelle have her coronation or would yet another teenager knock her off her throne and keep her from winning the great price.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Abigail thank you so much.
ABIGAIL FEDER-KANE: Thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Abigail Feder-Kane is probably the world's expert on media coverage of Olympic figure skating.