CALGARY, FEB. 26 -- The accusations are subtle and the insults are politic, but there is a positively operatic rivalry going on at the Winter Olympics between Katarina Witt of East Germany and Debi Thomas of the United States. These two misbehaving beauties will perform equal and opposing versions of the same music from "Carmen" tonight, each loathe to let the other have the figure skating gold medal.
By strange coincidence, these two radiant and equally regarded world champions chose the music from Bizet's tragic opera as their theme for the most important performance of their careers. That poses a question that has as much to do with the personal styles of each skater as their ability on the ice, and will ultimately be answered by the nine judges at the Saddledome.
Thomas is the marvelous athlete who wants to be a doctor, Witt the transcendant beauty who wants to be a movie star. And whatever the nine judges decide in the case of the "dueling Carmens," as it's being called, they run the risk of incurring the wrath of continents.
"You can either skate to this music or you can express it," Witt said cooly. "The judges will decide which they prefer."
Witt has insinuated Thomas lacks artistry and said straight out that they are not friends. Thomas has expressed distaste for the "Miss America" side of the sport, while her coach, Alex McGowan, contends Witt merely seduces the judges with her fashion model persona.
But thus far, neither Witt nor Thomas has made a mistake on the ice. After the compulsories, worth 30 percent, Thomas was in second place and Witt in third, both trailing the Soviet Union's Kira Ivanova, as expected. The compulsories were followed by the short program, worth 20 percent, won by Witt, with Thomas a close second. Overall, Thomas moved into first, but not by enough.
Had Thomas been able to put more ground between herself and Witt in the first two parts of the competition, she might have been able to lose the long program, worth 50 percent, yet still win the gold, much as Scott Hamilton did in beating Brian Orser in 1984. But to do that, she needed to lead by three places. Instead, the two are separated by just one place, a total of 0.2 points in the placings -- a virtual tie.
Now, Thomas must skate the performance of her lifetime, hope for some breaks in the judging and pray Witt makes a mistake. Only if both of them make serious mistakes that drop them to third or lower can the gold medal go to Elizabeth Manley of Canada, in third place now and trailing Thomas by 1.6 points.
In the matter of judging, Thomas may be at a disadvantage against Witt. The judges signalled their preference for Witt in the short program, and U.S. Olympic Committee sources said today they fear McGowan furthur injured her case with his inflammatory criticism of the judging Wednesday night.
Witt was scored first by six judges, and eight of them gave her higher artistic marks. McGowan implied that since the panel was primarily made up of men (five of them), they had fallen prey to Witt's charms rather than scoring objectively, and that they had already made their decision.
"I'm concerned that no matter what she does, the die is cast," McGowan said. "I get worried when I see that."
Perhaps whichever Carmen skates best will win. But Thomas is at a disadvantage there, as well. While Witt's technical skating is criticized in many quarters, her ability to mesmerize is not and she hasn't lost a long program since 1982. To lose to Thomas at the 1986 world championships in Geneva, she had to fall during her short program.
The jockeying coming into the long four-minute program has been evident in some gamesmanship. While Thomas skated her short routine, Witt stood at rink-side, clearly in view. Her applause afterward was obviously cool.
"She was standing right there. You couldn't miss her," Thomas said. "I don't think I would have stood right there, next to my coach. It wasn't a good idea. It'll probably just make me fight harder."
Thomas is a steely competitor -- even though she fell asleep between compulsory figures -- who trained full time while working on a pre-med major at Stanford. (She took a leave of absence to prepare for the Olympics.) She termed herself "invincible" on her college application.
"I think it's not a good idea to say that," Witt said. "Anyone can make a mistake."
In style, Thomas is the leaper of the two, a superb athlete who will do six triple jumps, including her rare triple toe loop-triple toe loop combination that comes in the first 15 seconds. That is a combination Witt either can't or won't perform. ("I don't do that one," Witt admitted.) Her interpretation of the "Carmen" music is wide-ranging and not necessarily faithful to the opera -- part arrogant, part sensuous and part joyous.
"I'm just the type who won't do it exactly the way I'm supposed to," Thomas said.
Witt is a torch skater whose costumes here have drawn criticism for being too revealing, particularly the French-cut suit she used in the short program she skated to Broadway music. Canadian coach Peter Dunfield was perhaps campaigning for his protege, Manley, when he called the outfit a G-string earlier this week.
McGowan merely laughed and said, "I'm not saying anything. I like G-strings."
Witt's long-program routine is more dramatic and includes a death scene, but has just five triples -- sometimes four, depending on how she feels. She acknowledges she has a trick of playing to a particular male in the audience, and defends her looks and rather flagrant use of them.
There is an added element of history: A victory for Witt would make her the most decorated skater of the modern era and the first to repeat as Olympic champion since Sonia Henie won three straight from 1928 through 1936. Besides the gold medal she has already won, she has taken three world titles, the first to manage that feat since Peggy Fleming in the 1960s.
Witt is not unaware of these facts, and also of the fact that a gold medal would help her prospective film career considerably. She said recently, "I don't want people to come to me someday and say, 'You used to be a famous skater.' "
And there is the one historical fact about Thomas that tends to be overlooked. A medal would make her the first black figure skater ever to acquire one in the Olympics, a fact that exists partly because of the training expenses that can run to $25,000 a year for equipment and coaching. But if that has been forgotten, it is because Thomas wants it that way.
"Is that still coming up?" she said. "I thought we got rid of that one years ago. I don't really have any thoughts on my racial identity. I really cringe when I hear it, because I don't think it affects the way I perform."
What all of the skaters' complexities amount to is simple, and similar to the Orser-Brian Boitano confrontation: Who can stand up? Another quirk of the judging is skating position, where Thomas finally has an advantage. Witt must skate first, and judges are known to reserve a margin of improvement for the skater who comes later.
"If one of the Carmens falls, the other will win," McGowan said. "If both skate clean, then it will go to interpretation and which the judges liked best."