Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The curse & blessing of the Olympics

Seven minutes to judge and shape a lifetime

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CERGY, France -- For Florent Amodio, it may be now or never.

The French figure skater was just 19 at his first Olympics in Vancouver, in 2010, old enough to appreciate the experience but not at his peak as an athlete. He placed 12th.

Now 22, he will be nearly 28, "a little bit too old," when the winter games travel to Pyeongchang, South Korea, in 2018.

Which makes Sochi his big one.

For the 2011 European champion, the Olympiad in Russia next February represents his best shot of winning a medal -- something that could shape his life, bring fame, possibly fortune, and certainly an indelible place in sports history.

"These are my games," Amodio says. "These are the only games, I think, where I'll be at the height of my powers."

Seven and a half minutes. That's how long Amodio and the other male skaters will have in total on the ice at Sochi's Iceberg Skating Palace to convince judges to make them Olympic champions, to show off years of training, thousands of hours perfecting jumps, spins and steps, and months of work on routines honed to shine at the games.

Seven and a half minutes divided into two skates -- a short program of no more than 2 minutes, 50 seconds, and a free program that must not exceed 4 minutes, 40 seconds or be shorter than 4 minutes, 20 seconds.

Amodio calls the Olympics "the ultimate competition" -- not more important to him than the annual world and European championships, but certainly bigger because they come around comet-like just once every four years and "there's a thousand times more publicity."

"It's a jolt to the heart, marvelous to live through," he says.

"It's a bit terrible, too, that it's a concentration of all these years of work," he adds. "I don't like this idea that an athlete's whole life is summed up with one competition."

To cope with that pressure, he intends to avoid viewing the Olympics as his be-all and end-all.

"For me, personally, it will be a competition like any other. That is how I will treat it."

His world championships this March in London, Ontario, verged on disastrous. He lost his balance and slipped going into a spin in his short program and ended up flat on his face on the ice. He also fell on his second jump in the long program. He finished 12th with a score -- 216.83 -- well short of his best and 50 points behind the champion, Patrick Chan from Canada.

Those championships brought a long and arduous 2012-13 season to a close for Amodio.

Time now to refocus. The Olympic clock is ticking. Despite his disappointment, Amodio started looking ahead as soon as the world event ended.

"Rendezvous in Sochi !!" he wrote to his supporters on Facebook.

Another post on his Instagram account showed him in a philosophical but positive frame of mind.

"Dear Past, thank you for all the lessons. Dear Future, I am ready," it read.

But that's not yet true.

To be ready for Sochi, Amodio must put together new skating routines -- with new music, costumes and moves. When much of the rest of France will lounge on beaches this summer, he expects to be working. His plan is to have the foundations of his Olympic program in place by October, leaving him four months to tweak and perfect it for the February games.

He says he doesn't obsess about them but, already, "I'm aware that it is in a corner of my head. Sometimes, I do find myself running through my program, saying to myself, 'This is how you'll be at the Olympic Games."'

Simply selecting his musical themes -- "I have to find music that is sombre, calm, beautiful, intense and very deep" -- will take months, at least until June or July, he figures.

He skated to The Black Eyed Peas and Michael Jackson when he won the European championships in 2011.

The following year, he found musical inspiration watching the animated movie "Rio." Its dance-y, carnival soundtrack felt "tailor-made for me," says Amodio, who was born in Brazil, abandoned as a baby and adopted by his French parents.

In his four-minute-plus free program, there'll be "something like four or five sections of music, so they have to be coherent and they have to suit the physical aspect of what we are doing," he says.

In the first minute, Amodio includes his biggest jumps -- quads where he spins four times in the air and a high-scoring triple axel.

"So I like to have a very sombre and intense music that allows me to stay concentrated," he says.

Changes of music, tempo and mood punctuate the rest of the program, with a climactic finale.

"Everything is built to crescendo," he says. "So the end is magnificent, fireworks."

The Vancouver Games were Amodio's first major international competition. He was happy with 12th place. "I did as well as I could."

The difference in Sochi will be that he'll head there thinking a medal is possible.

"You have to arrive feeling confident. I don't like doing this but I think the technique you need to employ at the Olympic Games is to tell yourself, 'I'm here to win.' Simple as that."

"The most brilliant thing of all about the Olympics is that you show yourself, your personality, to the whole world, really the whole world," he says. "It's with my personality that I want to make a mark."

"Even if I'm not Olympic champion, I couldn't care less. I just want them to remember and say, 'Oh yes, he was that guy ...' "

John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester@ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 31, 2013 A1

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