My favourite athlete of the Games is Silvia Fontana, the Italian figure skater who was the first of 24 competitors in last night’s finale of the ladies competition.
At a little after 7pm she took to the ice in a beige costume with flashing sequins. Her long brown hair was flapping about while every other skater ties theirs back and up into a bun. This meant that as Fontana spun round and round, her head looked like a towel in the washing machine.
And she proceeded to move to the strains of Puccini’s Turandot. You remember Pavarotti and Nessun Dorma I assume? Vincero! Vincero! I will win! Rank optimism obviously, but the home crowd loved it. The small Palavela auditorium at that point probably had only 60 per cent of its 8,300 seats occupied, but there was enough noise. Everyone was following Fontana.
She could I think have been more professional, but there are times when you can’t help but love Italians. Her evident surprise and delight at landing a jump she clearly didn’t think she could pull off prompted her to start pumping her arms in mid-routine. From then on she grinned manically as she moved round the ice.
When she stopped, Fontana raised her arms in the air and started pumping them again with glee. She burst into tears. Spectators threw flowers onto the ice. Little girls skated out from the sides to pick them up. We were all still imagining Pavarotti’s swelling vocals. I almost burst into tears. And there were four hours to go.
Fontana finished 22nd but she said: “I’ve been working 25 years for this moment. It’s been a magical moment for me today…I finally enjoyed my public instead of disappointing them.” Too right. Sometimes it really is about the taking part.
Once that was out of the way, we settled down to wait for the business end of the evening. In the meantime there were costumes to consider, particularly the arresting new trend of bodysuits. Almost all the leading skaters are still twirling about in short dresses, but a handful are wearing costumes that hug their bodies very tight and stretch down over their legs.
Elena Liashenko of Ukraine was wearing a two-tone bodysuit affair: something red underneath a top layer of what looked like ripped black webbing, set off by differently-coloured elbow length gloves. She looked like she had half changed into her Spiderwoman costume and got stuck.
Meanwhile I was taking note of the unusually high number of audience members on crutches. Winter sports are dangerous, including figure skating. There is a rasping noise the razor-sharp skates make as they are dug into the ice before a jump. The skater digs down and twists before take-off and the noise of ice being scratched sets your teeth on edge.
The skaters were also imperilled by the variety of objects being thrown onto the ice. The public address announcer cautioned at one point: “Only flowers that are properly wrapped may be thrown onto the ice.” Perhaps a tousled bunch would ruin the grace of the evening.
Not everyone brings unwrapped flowers. A member of the audience was so moved by the performance of Carolina Kostner, the disappointing Italian, that he or she chucked an enormous blue and white fluffy rabbit onto the ice. It lay wounded and disconsolate in a corner of the rink, just like so many skaters before it.
All three US skaters fell or slipped badly, which caused distress to the American banner wavers in the crowd. At one point rival fans from the US and Russia were chanting competitively at each other. The Russians were calling “I-Ree-Naaa” for Irina Slutskaya, who was in second place just behind Sasha Cohen of the US before last night’s skate.
The Americans retorted with the standard “You-Ess-Ay, You-Ess-Ay”. It was like being at a football match without the bad food and swearing.
But neither Cohen nor Slutskaya won. Gold went to Japan’s Shizuka Arakawa, who was also shamelessly wooing the crowd by moving around to Turandot. About midway through her four-minute routine, everyone in the audience started holding their breath. It was obvious that she was skating magnificently, and we were praying that she had finished jumping so that the danger of falling was past.
Arakawa received the night’s only standing ovation. She looked almost as happy as Fontana, four hours earlier.
The next and last Olympics diary will appear on Sunday