Competition Opens at Winter Games

Saturday, February 9th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) _ Pairs figure skating begins Saturday, with teams from the United States and Russia taking very different paths of late in one of the glamour sports of the Winter Olympics.

Kyoko Ina and John Zimmerman begin their bid to give the United States its first pairs medal since 1988. After winning their third national title, they will be happy to contend for a bronze.

Russians Yelena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze will be disappointed with anything less than gold. A Russian or ex-Soviet pair has won every competition in ice dancing since 1964, the longest run in an event by any country in the Winter Olympics.

World champions Jamie Sale and David Pelletier of Canada will try to put a halt to Russian dominance of a discipline that demands flawless execution in its short program and technical and artistic flair in its free skate.

The first medal of the Olympics will be awarded Saturday. Moguls skier Hannah Hardaway of Moultonborough, N.H., takes on mighty Kari Traa of Norway. Also, Todd Lodwick of Steamboat Springs, Colo., begins his bid for America's first Olympic medal in the Nordic Combined.

Speedskating features the men's 5,000 meters, and the Dutch threesome of Bob de Jong, Jochem Uytdehaage and Carl Verheijen were favored to sweep the medals in what could be a slew of world records at the breathtakingly fast Olympic Oval.

The Netherlands speedskating team is so talented that Gianni Romme, the defending Olympic gold medalist and world-record holder, failed to qualify for this event.

In cross country, two gold medals are to be decided _ the women's 15-kilometer freestyle and the men's 30-kilometer freestyle. Both feature a mass scramble at the start, instead of the traditional single-file, staggered beginning.

Katerina Neumannova of the Czech Republic is the one to beat in the 15K, and Per Elofsson of Sweden is the overwhelming favorite in the 30K.

There are four preliminary games in men's hockey: Belarus-Ukraine, Austria-Latvia, Slovakia-Germany, Switzerland-France.

In pairs skating, Tamara Moskvina has trained three of the Russian winners during that gold medal burst and could add another with Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze. The streak began after Canadians Barbara Paul and Robert Wagner won the gold for Canada in 1960.

``This is only a journalist's calculation,'' Moskvina said. ``I don't collect medals. This is not my hobby, to collect medals or achievements. We don't calculate. We just work.''

Moskvina also coaches Ina and Zimmerman. Perhaps she could add an American bronze to her resume.

``On paper and emotionally, we have definitely stepped it up a higher notch,'' Ina said. ``We've been on a roll.''

Her partner agreed, saying it seemed to be the year for underdogs.

``Look what happened at the World Series and the Super Bowl,'' Zimmerman said. ``You just can't predict what's going to happen.''

Sale and Pelletier will try to change Canada's luck. Since 1988, Canadian world figure skating champions have lost at the Olympics five times, including Isabelle Brasseur and Lloyd Eisler. They were world pairs champions in 1993 but third at the Lillehammer Olympics in 1994.

The pairs short program puts skating _ the biggest TV draw of the Winter Olympics _ out front right away, with the artistry on ice following the pageantry and emotion of Friday night's opening ceremony. The pairs final free program is Monday night.