Lack of marquee female figure skater has NBC worried about ratings

Television Critic

If only the Winter Olympics had a polar bear swim event -- then we could send Michael Phelps, and everyone from the Wheaties account managers to the “Got Milk?” ad reps could take a deep cleansing breath.

It’s too late for NBC, of course, where beleaguered executives have jettisoned the First Commandment of the entertainment industry -- Thou Shalt Not Acknowledge Failure and Certainly Not Before It Has Cometh. For weeks, the network has been whining that it will lose $250 million by airing the games because host city Vancouver is struggling to produce enough snow, and the United States, lacking for the first time in years a high wattage figure skater, is struggling to produce a star.

It didn’t help matters much when downhill skier Lindsey Vonn on Wednesday informed the world via Matt Lauer that her shin hurt so much she couldn’t stand up in her ski boots. With her long blond hair and winter-white smile, Vonn was America’s best hope for that Wheaties box -- she’s not only gorgeous enough to make the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, she is the reigning champion of the slopes, roundly predicted to bring home the gold.

If she can’t compete or does so hampered by injury, the network and pundits fear Americans will have only snowboarder Shaun White, speedskater Apolo Ono and figure skater Evan Lysacek as odds-on favorites, with perhaps freestyle skier Shannon Bahrke and her bubble-gum hued locks to provide a little snap.

All of whom are, athletic ability notwithstanding, a far cry from Michelle Kwan or Nancy Kerrigan in terms of name recognition.

It’s difficult to imagine a Winter Olympics narrative without its leading lady role filled by an American. When Peggy Fleming slid onto the ice at the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble, France, she not only won the only U.S. gold medal that year, she created a new American icon. Dorothy Hamill followed in 1976 and the gold medal winner became the only skater to not only invent a move -- the Hamill Camel -- but also have her haircut go national.

And it’s even harder to envision a sports rivalry more brutally melodramatic, or well known, than that between Tonya Harding and Kerrigan. It was at the 1994 games in Lillehammer, Norway, that Harding, the first woman to land a triple axel in competition, conspired to have Kerrigan’s knee broken.

Even without the high drama, figure skating is an entry point for many viewers. It is to the Winter Olympics what gymnastics is to the summer. A figure skating routine has an essential narrative, not to mention a score, that allows the athletes to express more than just their prowess. Who else gets to wear sequins and tulle? Who else gets to show a little cleavage?

But this year, the United States’ top figure skater, Rachael Flatt, is ranked ninth in the world. So it fell to Vonn to embody the American spirit in the pre-game build up. More than 20 years after the break up of the Soviet Union, the East / West frenzy that fueled earlier Olympics is not just outdated, it’s unknown to younger viewers.

In these One World days, the Olympics have become less about establishing national dominance or making a political statement -- two years ago the Summer Olympics were held in Beijing, for heaven’s sake -- and more about the personal journey. Often times, we are more compelled by the back story than we are by the event, and like contestants on “American Idol,” Olympians are expected to have some bit of pathos in their personal history.

If Vonn competes, her injury will certainly be added value: Whatever she achieves will be even more extraordinary considering earlier this week she could not stand in her ski boot.

But if she’s out, we will have to look to White, an already vibrant and somewhat revolutionary figure. Snowboarding is still an outlaw’s sport and White represents a very different sort of Olympian, a disheveled redhead with many über dude qualities who is at the forefront of those who would launch extreme sports into the mainstream.

Perhaps it’s time for a new Olympic hero. Out with the lutz and the axel, in with the McTwist and the switch backside. And although White has publicly denounced his nickname -- the Flying Tomato -- it could do pretty big business as a haircut.