By Julian Linden
SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - Of all the weird and wonderful competitions at the Sochi Winter Olympics, none has the ability to captivate and stir the emotions more than women's figure skating.
The competitors may not be as hip as the snowboarders or as tough as the ice hockey players, but their unique blend of grace and athleticism makes them compulsive viewing.
The women's singles is one of the blue-riband events of the Olympic program, appealing to a wide demographic and promising fame and fortune to the winner with previous champions going on to star in ice shows, on television and in Hollywood movies.
This year's Olympic competition, to be held at the Iceberg Skating Palace on Tuesday and Wednesday, has all the ingredients of a classic, with a cast of precociously talented women.
The Olympic champion is South Korea's Kim Yuna, who is skating for the last time before retiring at the age of 23.
A superstar in her homeland and one of the highest-paid female athletes in all sports, she is bidding to become only the third woman to win back-to-back titles.
By her own standards, Kim has kept a low profile in Sochi as the spotlight has turned on 15-year-old Julia Lipnitskaya.
The Russian is already one of the faces of the Games after her spellbinding performance in the team event when she became the youngest Russian to win an Olympic gold medal.
With her petite frame and amazing flexibility, she executes her spin sequences faster than anyone else, and is melting hearts around the world.
Part of the fascination with figure skating is that the competitors appeal to the child in everyone, evoking a time of innocence and play.
For her long program, Lipnitskaya plays the role of the doomed little girl in the red trench coat, from Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List, who seems oblivious to the horrors of the Holocaust.
Just as Soviet gymnast Olga Korbut did at Munich in 1972, Lipnitskaya has been changing the perception of Russia, not through power, but through grace, and everyone wants a piece of her.
Among the first to offer congratulations when she won team gold was the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. In the United States, where the media have been highly critical of the Sochi Olympics, she has become an internet sensation and helped generate record television figures.
No Russian woman has won the singles gold and in a sport where one small slip can mean the difference between winning and losing, the stakes could not be higher for the teenager.
A win on home ice would not only make her a national heroine but assure her a fortune in sponsorships and endorsements, something that her inner circle are all too aware of.
"We try to shield her from everything," said her coach, Eteri Tutberidze. "This opportunity might come only once in a lifetime. We have no idea what will happen in four years."
As always, the Americans have their own figure skating darling - the delightfully named Gracie Gold.
Unlike Lipnitskaya, the 18-year-old Gold has been embracing her time in the public eye, appearing on television talk shows and having her picture splashed on the front cover of Sports Illustrated when she won the U.S. national title last month.
With tensions again building between the United States and Russia, her battle with Lipnitskaya has taken on an edge but even the American is smitten by her opponent.
"Julia is a machine and an excellent skater," Gold said. "We're just going to try to beat her at her own game and on her own turf and, at the end, leave everything out on the ice."
Mao Asada carries the hopes of Japan. A two-times world champion, she is one of the few women who can perform a triple axel, one of the toughest jumps in figure skating.
At the last Olympics in Vancouver, she landed three of them and won the silver medal. This time she plans to perform an unprecedented variation of eight triples to try and win over the judges through athleticism.
"I'm nervous, but I feel secure about myself," she said. "I'm looking forward to it. I love being back on this grand stage."
At 27, Italy's Carolina Kostner is one of the oldest competitors in the event but, after winning the world title two years ago, she has a chance in one of the deepest and most competitive figure skating line-ups of all time.
Whoever wins, only two things are certain. The world will be watching and the champion's life will be changed forever.
(Reporting by Julian Linden; Editing by Robert Woodward)