LOS ANGELES – The figure skating world has descended upon the City of Angels this week, but the host nation is skating on thin ice in its favorite discipline.
The United States has dominated women's figure skating for half a century, yet with less than a year to go until the Vancouver Winter Olympics, it is desperately searching for a star.
Whether through notoriety, beauty or sheer brilliance, America's female skaters have regularly managed to foist themselves into the public mindset. Yet even though this week's World Figure Skating Championships are being held in Los Angeles, U.S. interest is waning.
There are no Michelle Kwans or Tara Lipinskis these days to light up the Staples Center crowd. Indeed, the biggest names at these championships are from overseas – Japan's Mao Asada and South Korea's Kim Yu-na. Those women, while rock stars in skating circles, are not going to get crank up the ratings for Saturday night's title-deciding free program.
For the U.S., failure to perform in this event has repercussions that will filter all the way to Vancouver next year. Alissa Czisny and Rachael Flatt must finish with a combined position of no more than 13, otherwise the U.S. will only have two women's participants in Vancouver instead of its normal three. But a gloomier scenario is likely.
The boom times, sparked by the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan knee-crushing controversy and carried into this decade by Kwan, Sasha Cohen and Kimmie Meissner, are over.
Television figures for the U.S. Nationals this past January dropped significantly, and the economic crisis has cut down the regular season of professional skate shows across America.
An American, Evan Lysacek, won men's event here on Thursday night. But Lysacek's emotional moment was not shown on broadcast television – only the women's final will be shown on NBC.
"If [the men's] event was not live on TV it is not the ISU's fault," International Skating Union president Ottavio Cinquanta said. "We asked for it.
"If figure skating is going down in TV in this country we are sorry, but the standard is very high. We are improving the quality. If it is not acceptable by the market, what can we do?"
Czisny and Flatt dropped out of contention in Friday afternoon's short program. Flatt came in seventh with 59.30 points, Czisny is 14th with 53.28. Leader Kim Yu-na heads the pack with 76.12.
Unless Flatt or Czisny pulls off a miracle and gets into the top three, it will be the first time since 1964 that no American woman has been on the Worlds podium for three straight years.
"We have great athletes. They are pushing as hard as they can," said David Raith, the executive director of U.S. Figure Skating. "We just need more consistency."
For Czisny, this Worlds will likely be remembered more for her error-strewn practice early in the week than for her performance in the event itself. Czisny tumbled to the ice on four separate occasions, seeming to highlight the gap that has opened up between the haves and the have-nots at the elite level.
"People would want to see an American up there in the top three," said Kwan, now 28 but refusing to rule out a comeback.
"Unfortunately, we do not have anyone who has it all."