When last we visited top-level figure skaters, it was at Lake Placid, N.Y. Linda Fratianne's mother was threatening to sue Carlo Fassi, the famous coach, and Fratianne's instructor, Frank Carroll, was charging that collusion among international judges at the Olympics had cost his skater the gold medal.

It was a maelstrom of tears and accusations, one of the worst brouhahas of its type in modern times, according to skating folks.

Things have quieted down in the intervening two years, and it has been calm at the U.S. Figure Skating Association's national championships this weekend. "Calm until the next time the roof blows off," said Roy Winder, the association's executive director.

"You'll find a lot of feigned friendships around here," said Don Laws, who coaches world men's singles champion Scott Hamilton. He was describing the aura of camaraderie among coaches, competitors and the judges, who decide their fate. Deep down, Laws implied, is a reservoir of resentment and mistrust.

And it seems destined to stay that way, as long as figure skating remains a sport in which winners are chosen by the subjective judgment of officials. No matter how far above suspicion the individual officials are, rumors of favoritism and collusion persist.

Here at the nationals it is accepted by skating enthusiasts that reigning champions have an automatic advantage. Hamilton "is like a boxing champion," said Winder's wife Jean. "You have to knock him out to beat him."

The same applies for pairs champions Kitty and Peter Carruthers, the reigning dance team of Judy Blumberg and Michael Seibert and defending women's champion Elaine Zayak. Zayak, in fact, became the first reigning champion in a decade to lose her title when she fell four times in the final two events of the women's championship this weekend.

Even then, there was doubt she would be stripped of her crown, until Rosalynn Sumners swept by her with a flawless performace Friday night.

Equivalent performances by incumbent champions get slightly higher scores than those of lower-ranking competitors. Judges are not permitted to comment during a competition, "but I don't think even they would deny it," said Jean Winder.

According to veteran coach Evy Scotvold, champions get this cushion because, "In this sport, you only have one shot (the nationals). The premise is to pick the best skater there, not the luckiest. And I can honestly accept picking the skater who is best, despite the fact that he may make errors in the competition."

The champion then moves on to the worlds as his or her nation's top-rated entry.

If the skater, by committing several mistakes in the nationals, wound up the nation's No. 2 or 3 entry instead, "the international judges would say, 'Well, you don't even think he's the best in your country. Why should we think he's best in the world?' " Scotvold said.

Scotvold maintains that was the kind of reasoning behind the decision to grant Hamilton a reskate during compulsory figures competition here when he picked a bad patch of ice for one of his figures and was almost stopped cold by it. "I seriously doubt that some other competitors would have gotten a reskate," said Scotvold.

Yet he defended the policy. "If you don't like it because you're the chaser, someday you'll love it because you're the champion," he said.

In the view of Fassi, who, as head of Broadmoor Skating Club in Colorado, is regarded as the top singles coach in the United States, American judges make a mistake by giving defending champions a break.

"Too many times we give a free ride to the champion," he said. "For example, they gave it to Linda Fratianne and then she skated badly in the Olympics."

By contrast, he said, the No. 1 West German recently lost in his country's nationals. As No. 2, Fassi indicated, he'll recognize his deficiencies and correct them before the worlds in Copenhagen in March.

The fact that Fassi disagrees with the prevailing U.S. view is no surprise. He is a loner among American coaches, a native of Italy who prides himself on his familiarity with the international skating game. He has coached world champions Dorothy Hamill, Peggy Fleming and Britons John Curry and Robin Cousins. Along the way he's managed to alienate most of the U.S. coaches, who claim he has a tendency to steal their best prospects.

As a former European champion and coach to skaters from France, Germany, Sweden, Czechoslovakia and Poland, Fassi ranks as an expert on the intricacies of international judging, which has its own foibles.

His battles with the Fratiannes stemmed from the real or imagined clout he allegedly had with international judges. The Fratiannes claimed he turned the judges against Linda after she elected to stay with her old coach rather than study with Fassi.

Fassi denied that, but he and other coaches here agreed that at world and Olympic competition, the pressures on judges are more complicated than in national events. There is block voting among politically affiliated countries, they said, and other "you-scratch-my-back, I'll-scratch-yours" arrangements are common.

Fassi has earned a reputation for having particularly good relations with European judges, and American coaches say that's one reason so many top American competitors go to him for final schooling before international events.

"We call it his 'European connection,' " said Carroll. "I've sat next to him at the Olympics and heard him chatting with the judges in Italian or his wife in German."

Fassi concedes that many of the European judges who work the worlds and Olympics were skating opponents of his 30 years ago, but he contends it doesn't help him. "Sometimes I get murdered," he said. "And when I come to the American nationals, I feel the same thing. They (coaches and judges) are all eating together."

Fassi said his international success results principally from his knowledge of the European mind and his ability to put himself in the place of international judges. "I let my pupils go through the routine and then I say, 'Okay, now I am the Russian judge.' And I will find everything that is wrong." He said that American coaches, by contrast, are often overly optimistic and fail to recognize weaknesses in their skaters' programs.

Whatever his connections might be, the American skating scene is livelier for having Fassi around. In a room full of colorful, theatrical skating types, Fassi stands out, a smallish figure in a cape-like coat, gesticulating wildly.

"I don't dare stand next to him when he has a student on the ice," said Jean Winder. "I'm afraid he'll clobber me."

Fassi drives a Mercedes when he isn't in a Rolls or a Jaguar, say his Colorado neighbors. His wife Christa wears a full-length coat of natural Canadian mink to the practice arena, and wherever he goes, Fassi exhibits a European flair akin to that of Baron Marcel Bich, the yachting magnate.

"When he first came to the States (in 1961) he didn't understand stop signs," said Jean Winder. "He'd slow down and blow his horn. When he finally got a ticket, he told the policeman, 'But officer, I klaxoned.' "

Fassi didn't get off that time, but for 21 years he's had powerful success flaunting his European style.

He says he is just following an Italian adage he learned as a child: "If you want to succeed, get a long way away from home."