Rena Inoue’s smile lit up the arena. John Baldwin’s fist cut through the air like a sword.

The couple had plenty to celebrate after they landed the first throw triple axel in figure skating. Even more amazing was that an American pair made history.

Or, at least, history of a positive kind.

Pairs, which opens the Olympic skating competition Saturday, is the weak link for American skaters. The last Olympic medal was a bronze by Jill Watson and Peter Oppegard in Calgary in 1988; rarely have U.S. duos threatened to reach the podium since.

A medal this year isn’t even part of the discussion. A top 10 finish for Inoue-Baldwin would be a success. Same thing for Marcy Hinzmann and Aaron Parchem.

Why can’t the United States contend in pairs? Americans Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto are medals favorites in ice dance, where the U.S. drought dates back to 1976. But pairs is an icy wasteland.

“It’s been on a downgrade for, I’d say, the last 10 years,” says former U.S. pairs champion Rocky Marval. “It’s unfortunate. It’s a little painful to watch.

“What we need is to recruit and scout talented skaters we feel would be competitive with the international skaters. There are a lot of good skaters out there. It’s our matching process that has not been successful. There are a lot of egos involved in that process. Too many (coaches) interfering with the matching process.”

Pairing up partners never is a problem in Russia and China, the dominant countries. Nor is coaching interference, because most of the top coaches teach the same style.

“In other countries, especially Russia, they designate certain people to do pairs,” says Ron Ludington, one of America’s premier pairs coaches for decades and a bronze medalist in the 1960 Games with his sister, Nancy. “I’ve known skaters from Russia who’ve told me they were originally singles skaters and they were told they were going to be pairs.

“There are some good (American) girls out there. But these coaches won’t allow the girls to go out because they’ve put all that work into them. It’s different in Russia because they’re told what to do.

“If we mismatch our pairs in this country, they break up.”

Adds Inoue, who represented Japan in both singles and pairs in two other Olympics: “The Chinese (Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo, the 2002 and 03 world champions) have been together since he was 12 and she was 7. That’s a long time together. You have to go through a lot to make yourselves one.”

One is the appropriate number for Russian or Soviet couples; they have won every Olympics since 1964.

Recently, China has developed some of the most athletic and technically brilliant pairs ever seen.

But in America, pairs has fallen flat, without much sign of immediate revitalization. Pairs are strong at the junior level, with American teams taking up six of the eight spots at this year’s Junior Grand Prix final. There is no guarantee, though, that their success will carry over at the senior level. Or even that the couples will stay together long enough to try.

Ludington believes the emphasis on singles in this country has hurt pairs. Marval blames the leadership of U.S. Figure Skating for not paying more attention to pairs.

David Raith, the federation’s new executive director, insists that will change quickly.

“Just to do more camps, maybe have a group that’s looking strictly at the pairs program, which we don’t really do fully right now,” he suggests as a solution. “We’re making this a priority.”

They’d better. Pairs is the only event in Turin where the United States doesn’t have the full complement of three entrants. Although Inoue and Baldwin are two-time U.S. champions, they have never finished higher than 10th at worlds.

Even though many Russian pairs, including world champions and Olympic favorites Tatiana Totmianina and Maxim Marinin, train in the United States, their surpassing skills haven’t rubbed off. Yet.

One solution could be hiring more Russian coaches to work with American teams. Tamara Moskvina, generally considered the world’s foremost pairs teacher, guided Kyoko Ina and John Zimmerman to three national championships and a bronze medal at the 2002 world championships – albeit against a watered-down field. For several years she taught in New Jersey, but is back in Russia now and has Julia Obertas and Sergei Slavnov in the Turin Games. Moskvina is optimistic that American pairs skating will turn around. When? She isn’t predicting.

“It seems now in the United States there are many new pairs and the quantity is outstanding. But the quality is not yet,” Moskvina says. “Pairs need lots of time for them to adjust to each other and to develop the artistry and style. These young pairs do not have it. In a few years, yes, they will achieve that.

“There was no new generation standing behind these skaters such as Kyoko and John when they were close to retiring or going to the professionals. So then there is a gap. We are seeing that, a gap in quality. When you have many top pairs, the competition will be strong and it will improve them.”

Oppegard claims it’s already happening, even if the results internationally don’t show it. In addition to the talent at the junior level, he points to a spirited pairs competition at nationals last month. And, not surprising, to that unprecedented throw triple axel by his students.

“I feel, and maybe I’m slightly biased, but I saw a lot of performances at nationals, and one of the highlights was John and Rena’s,” Oppegard says. “I think things like that make people look at pairs and say, “This is something I want to do.”‘

AP-ES-02-08-06 1759EST