CALGARY, Feb. 27 -- Two dueling "Carmens" formed the centerpiece of the Winter Olympics tonight. Debi Thomas of the United States and Katarina Witt of East Germany performed opposing programs to music from the famed opera, and neither was as good as it should have been.

But Witt made the least number of mistakes, winning the women's figure skating gold medal and defending the Olympic title she won in 1984. Thomas, skating last, made several errors to give away a title she had every chance of getting, and settled for the bronze medal.

"I'm sorry," she said as she came off the ice.

Canada's Elizabeth Manley proved to be an unforeseen interloper in the duel between Thomas and Witt. Skating classically and athletically, Manley got the highest marks of the night from the nine judges to win the long program, worth 50 percent of the overall score.

Manley had been just third coming into tonight, and could not advance to the gold despite a performance that was scored better than both Thomas' and Witt's by the nine judges.

"I knew I was going to do it," Manley said. "I've been having dreams about this."

Witt, the 22-year-old defending Olympic and world champion, skated second in the final group of five. Looking appropriately Spanish in red satin and black lace, she transported the capacity crowd of 19,000, but she did just four triple jumps, electing to turn a triple toe loop to a double. She received three marks of 5.8, four of 5.7, and two of 5.6 for technical merit. Her marks for artistry were solid 5.9s with two 5.8s.

That left the door wide open for Thomas, the 20-year-old Stanford pre-med who stripped Witt of the world title in 1986 and skated last. In a black dress with red and silver flowered drippings, her vivid, triumphant routine fell apart as she missed four of her jumps, never falling but not landing them either. Her Carmen received marks ranging from 5.5 to 5.7, fourth best of the evening.

"Well, back to school," she said.

Another skater received almost as uproarious an ovation as the two champions. Japan's Midori Ito, who was just 10th after the compulsories, performed flawlessly to classical music to receive seven marks of 5.9 for technical merit. Her artistic marks were lower, mostly 5.6s and 5.7s, but she was third-best in the long program and climbed to fifth place overall.

One-time U.S. national champion Jill Trenary skated elegantly, but lacked content, reducing many of her triple jumps to doubles and finishing fourth. A third U.S. skater, Caryn Kadavy, was bedriddden with a high fever and was forced to withdraw.

Witt came in knowing that a victory would make her one of the most decorated figure skaters of all time. Only Sonja Henie in the 1920s and early '30s was able to repeat as Olympic champion, with three gold medals. Thomas knew that this was her only Olympics, and that she could become the first black in the history of the Winter Games to win a medal.

Thomas and Witt represented contrasting styles, as well as two world champions who made it clear they had no great fondness for each other. Thomas was thought to have the advantage athletically with her dynamic leaps, while Witt's charisma and grace seemed to make her unparalleled.

Much had been made of the fact that Thomas and Witt each independently chose music from Bizet's tragic opera "Carmen" for their Olympic program. But their routines had as little in common as the skaters did personally. Save for one brief excerpt from an aria at the beginning, their musical selections were different.

So were their interpretations. Thomas chose to skate a more joyous, energetic passage that was punctuated by her five triple jumps. It began with a shaky triple toe-loop-triple-toe-loop in the first 15 seconds, a difficult combination seldom attempted by women.

Witt's was a more evocative, balletic interpretation. She, too, had five planned triple jumps, performing four, although they were not as ambitious as Thomas' program. The beauty with hopes of being a film star opted for slightly easier jumps, and resorted to some drama, ending with a death scene as she fell prone on the ice.

Thomas had hoped her more difficult piece might give her an extra one-tenth of a point in the scoring on technical merit. She was also banking on her superior leaping ability to cancel out any perceived artistic edge Witt might have. She had labored in the last few months over her own expression, spending sessions with Mikhail Baryshnikov, and enlisting former American Ballet Theatre dancer George de la Pena as a choreographer.

"Maybe people feel I'm more athletic because I try to do harder things," Thomas said earlier. "But it makes me mad because I've worked so hard on my artistic side, and it's still getting underrated."

That issue came to the fore in Thursday night's short program worth 20 percent, which was won by Witt in the midst of scoring controversy. Thomas won higher marks from six judges for technical merit, but Witt won the better marks artistically from eight of them.

And while Thomas remained in first place overall by two-tenths of a point on the basis of a better performance in the compulsories, worth 30 percent, it seemed a clear sign the judges preferred Witt.