Based on pecking order and political clout of their respective federations, as well as their actual skating and programs, I think top twelve after the short would be something like this if all went clean:
3. Butyrskaya (I really think she deserved second)
I remember being okay with the Chen bronze even though I loved & still do love Butyrskaya. But I was still taking in everything that had gone on that night (morning here in London) with the Lipinski/Kwan result. So I think I kinda brushed the -Who should get the bronze debate-away.
I have watched the event several times online over the past couple of years & still am okay with it. I think because I liked Chen so much as a personality & skater that her having another bronze was a perfect reward after everything she had been through with the injuries & I admired her so much for her reaction to her short program at the 97' Worlds.
It's a pity Butyrskaya could not have skated better in SLC.
It was more a shame that Butyrskaya couldnt skate better in Nagano than SLC. Nagano was her medal shot and she blew it. She never had a hope of a medal in SLC. Hughes, Kwan, Slutskaya, and Cohen were the contenders there. It is too bad there was no 2000 Olympics. She would have been a medal lock and a gold medal contender had there been.
I'm surprised at how much people are bashing Lulu's artistry... Her LP was a masterpiece, and it was right up there with her 94-95 and 95-96 LPs, if not better.
Chen was an unknown because of her crappy 1997 Worlds showing and less than solid fall / GP season.
Slutskaya was ofcourse a World medalist and Euro champ and therefore another huge threat for the bronze but IIRC Butyrskaya had beat her many times that season, as recent as Euros and she wasn't exactly on form that season. I would think Russia would be equally politiking for both of them to medal.
Bobek was a medal threat because of her Nationals performances but she was even more inconsistent, especially on the internationally stage.
Despite being a reigning World medalist, Gusmeroli was relatively new and her results were nowhere near Butyrskaya's. Bonaly had lost her tricks and Hubert was as inconsistent as always.
Butyrskaya was a medal threat too in 2002, but probably not as hot as Hughes who beat her and even Kwan and Slutskaya that season, could throw out 6 / 7 triples and 3/3s (albeit cheated) like no one's business, and Russia went full force politiking for Slutskaya to win instead. She was very much alone and didn't even skate that strongly at that GP season and only won Euros because Sluskaya made mistakes in the short.
Overall I think her better shot was 1998.
Maria's chances from 1998 to 2002 are interesting. She had the easier path to the bronze in 2002. Had she skated to just 75% of her potential she would have won the bronze no matter how everyone else skated, and with how the competition went even 60% of her best would have won it for her. Unfortunately she did about 55% of her best in the long program (was still robbed IMO).
2002 she had a lower chance of winning bronze than 1998. However she had much more chance of gold or silver than 1998. It wasnt a high chance but in 1998 doing better than bronze was almost 0. In 2002 going in she maybe had 25% chance of atleast bronze, but 10% of silver or better, and maybe 3% chance of gold. So the odds were very low to win gold or silver but there was atlast a chance unlike 1998. She had beaten every top skater that quad, beaten Slutskaya many times, only beaten Kwan once but led her in the short program and had numerous chances to beat her. With how the competition was skated if she skated a clean long program she probably would have won the gold over Hughes for instance.
I thought the LP was placed fairly among those 3. In my mind it was the short that was skewed so badly. I would have had it Michelle/ Maria or Maria/Michelle, & then Tara. Maria skating first & Tara being reigning World Champion led to that result I think. However, the judges were more than ready to place Maria on the podium but IMO her LP was disasterous. She was stiff & she made mistakes. Chen's jumps weren't that good but her presentation was wonderful.
Another thing about Bute in 02 was the judges were clearly no longer on her side by that point. In 98 she was a top contender for that medal, but by the next quad she was overpassed for a medal over Hughes at worlds, and generally speaking was consistently losing to her. She no longer was considered the contender Slute and Kwan, and now Hughes and Cohen were ataining. All considering she did pretty good in her last Olympics and for her age at that time.
I agree that in 2002 her chances for gold or silver were better than 98, but in 98 her chances for bronze were higher than 2002. So better chance depends on whether you mean better chance to win or better chance to medal.
Everyone seems to agree with a decent skate she has the bronze in 98 easy, but probably couldnt do any better than that. In 2002 though it is more intersting to wonder. With how Kwan and Slutskaya had problems, how would she have done if she skated her best. Could she have even beaten Hughes for the gold? Would she have atleast medalled, either silver over Slutskaya or bronze over Kwan?
I don't think Butyrskaya was contending for more than bronze in 2002. The picture was very fuzzy because Butyrskaya had a rough GP season (losing to Hughes at the GPF), but then she beat Slutskaya at Europeans (where neither skated very well). Moreover, Maria was past her prime that year - she was lacking in speed, her elements had deteriorated somewhat in quality, and her jumps were less consistent. Maria at her prime, skating to her potential, would certainly have won gold at SLC. Think Maria at the 1999 Worlds (SP+LP), which would have placed at least 4th in the SP and easily 1st in the LP in SLC. Hughes didn't get a single 5.9 for her LP. Scene d'Amour skated to her potential would have won the SP at SLC as well.
So basically Maria needed an Olympics in 2000 to have a chance at gold or even silver. Either 1998 or 2002 it was bronze at best case scenario for her? Lets just say hypothetically she did one of her good short programs from that season at the Games (not her rather weak but clean SP in SLC) and combined it with a clean LP as unlikely as that was. Where would the judges have placed her vs a skate of her life Hughes, shaky and flawed and unusually slow Slutskaya, and Kwan with a fall and not great skate.
The Nagano bronze had about 12 equally eligible ladies all competing for it. It was like its own mini olys. The SLC bronze was going to either Maria or Sarah.
Given how Kwan skated one could argue Sasha deserved bronze over Kwan. That was a tight Kwan both in sp and lp