Belbin looks like an Olympic medalist. But we say the winner is . . .
(Judge for yourself whether ice dancer Tanith Belbin gets style points for this.)
A few figure skating observations as the Grand Prix series heads into its last event before the Dec. 4-5 final in Tokyo:
*Over dinner Sunday night in Lake Placid, five reporters who will be covering figure skating at the 2010 Olympics agreed to hazard predictions on the Winter Games medals.
I decided to come up with an aggregate of our picks by assigning five points for a prediction of gold, three for silver, one for bronze.
I know the whole thing is very unscientific, but the point here is simply to have some fun.
The results showed: no man getting votes from all five of us; Yuna Kim of South Korea being unanimous for gold; wide difference of opinion on the other women's medals; and compelling unpredictability in three of the four disciplines.
In ice dance, we liked reigning world champions Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin of Russia even though they have not competed this season because of his knee injury, and a couple of us thought Isabelle Delobel would come back so strong from giving birth to a son Oct. 2, and that she and Olivier Schoenfelder, the 2008 world champions from France, could make the Olympic podium.
(Our panel was Juliet Macur and Jere Longman of the New York Times; Christine Brennan and Kelly Whiteside of USA Today; and me. FYI: Groups of us have done this in the past, and although the predictions have been lost to the mists of history, it should be noted Longman was the only one among a previous panel to pick Tara Lipinski as 1998 Olympic champion.)
In listing the 2010 predictions, I will give total points and votes by place. So, for example, in ice dance, Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto of the United States had 17 (2-2-1), which means 17 points on 2 firsts, 2 seconds and a third.
Without further ado, the envelope, please:
WOMEN: Yuna Kim, South Korea, 25 (5-0-0); Rachael Flatt, U.S., 6: (0-2-0); Joannie Rochette, Canada, 4 (0-1-1); Mao Asada, Japan, 3 (0-0-3); Miki Ando, Japan, 3 (0-1-0); Akiko Suzuki, Japan, 3 (0-1-0); Julia Sebestyen, Hungary, 1 (0-0-1).
MEN: Evgeny Plushenko, Russia, 16 (2-2-0); Evan Lysacek, U.S., 12 (1-2-1); Patrick Chan, Canada, 7 (1-0-2); Nobunari Oda, Japan, 6 (1-0-1); Brian Joubert, France, 4 (0-1-1).
PAIRS: Savchenko-Szolkowy, Germany, 21 (3-2-0); Shen-Zhao, China, 16 (2-2-0); Pang-Tong, China, 5 (0-1-2); Zhangs, China, 2 (0-0-2); Mukhortova-Trankov, Russia, 1 (0-0-1).
DANCE: Domnina-Shabalin, Russia, 19 (3-1-1); Belbin-Agosto, U.S., 17 (2-2-1); Davis-White, U.S., 7 (0-2-1); Delobel and Schoenfelder, France, 2 (0-0-2)
*Surest sign the Olympics are approaching: an attractive U.S. female athlete pictured in a state of undress for a magazine.
This time, it's ice dancer Tanith Belbin on the cover of Men's Health, where she is called, ``America's hottest Olympic athlete.''
The hottest stuff is nothing new for Belbin, 25 a naturalized U.S. citizen from Canada (and ex-girlfriend of reigning world champion Evan Lysacek). Voters on ESPN.com had called Belbin ``the hottest female athlete,'' period, in 2006, when she won the Olympic silver medal with partner Benjamin Agosto, who grew up in the Chicago suburbs.
The Men's Health photo spread, titled "How to Woo a Tech Girl,'' said Belbin, "loves SIM cards more than the average 25-year-old woman does.''
Belbin's relatively modest poses, by comparison with those of Olympic swimmer Amanda Beard and high jumper Amy Acuff, who posed nude for Playboy, follow in a tradition of self-revelation that includes, among others, swimmer Jenny Thompson, volleyball player Logan Tom, soccer player Brandi Chastain and water polo player Amber Stachowski.
Maybe Belbin is hoping the judges will find her love for everything hi-tech so convincing they give her higher technical scores in a scoring system that relies on all manner of gadgetry.
If it is an all-male panel, she's as good as gold.
*Rachael Flatt's performance at Skate America had big mistakes [fall on the jump combination in the short program, botched combination spin in the free skate] but it still clearly established her as the favorite in January's U.S. Championships -- unless, of course, Alissa Czisny or Caroline Zhang or Mirai Nagasu blows the doors off in this weekend's Skate Canada.
Flatt, known for her consistency, had been consistently lackluster in her earlier Grand Prix event, Cup of China, finishing 5th in the short program and free skate. Slow and steady can only take you so far.
"This certainly gives me a lot of confidence heading into nationals,'' Flatt said after Skate America, when she hit seven triple jumps. "I have been doing clean programs or close-to-clean programs in practice, so I'm glad to finally compete the way I've been practicing.''
Should Flatt win nationals, she would be the fifth different women's champion in the past five years. That never has happened before under normal circumstances.
The only similar streaks occurred in the seven years from 1990 through 1996 and the five years from 1960 through 1964.
There were six different champions from 90-96 but the 1994 title, won by Tonya Harding, was vacated because of Harding's involvement in the attack on rival Nancy Kerrigan. Harding also won in 1991.
There were five different champions from 1960 through 1964, but the elite of U.S. skating was wiped out in a 1961 crash of the plane taking the team to the world championships.
Flatt, 17, has been the runner-up at nationals the past two years.
*In the ships-passing-in-the-night dept., we have U.S. men Brandon Mroz and Ryan Bradley, who are both coached by Tom Zakrajsek in Colorado Springs.
Mroz had plenty of bravado after the short program at Skate America, telling reporters he had the same technical ammunition as Russia's Evgeny Plushenko, the 2006 Olympic champion, who has made an impressive return to competition after a three-season absence.
Then Mroz, 18, shot himself in the foot (feet?) over and over again at Skate America, in one of the worst performances I ever have seen an accomplished skater give. It compared (unfavorably) with Carolina Kostner's mess at the 2009 worlds.
Against the weakest men's field in any of the first five Grand Prix events this season, Mroz finished 11th of 12 in the free skate. His scorecard: one fall, only one decently executed triple jump, other triples repeatedly turned into doubles.
Bradley had several performances similar to Mroz's disaster since finishing second at the 2007 U.S. Championships. One was at the Paris Grand Prix this season, where he finished 10th of 12 in a free skate he amazingly opened with a successful quad jump. Bradley was 8th overall there.
Bradley, who turned 26 Tuesday, was headed for the abyss again at Skate America after botching his first two jumps and finishing eighth in the short program. Then he rallied to finish second in the long program -- and overall -- with solid skating in a delightfully whimsical interpretation of a program called ``Chamber Music,'' which includes snippets of Albinoni, Mozart and others.
Bradley's scores were a long way from those of winner Lysacek -- but also a long way from where he had been.
``I didn't put myself on the Olympic team today, but I didn't take myself out of the running, either,'' Bradley said. ``There is a light at the end of the tunnel. It was looking a little dark for a while.''
*Frank Carroll, paraphrasing a quip he had heard another coach say, delivered the best line ever about most skaters' lack of relationship to the sounds they are skating to. Said the coach of a skater after a particularly tone-deaf effort: ``The music never bothered her.''
-- Philip Hersh
Photo: Courtesy Men's Health magazine