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 Figure skating section

  Beyond the Grace, Skating Is a Steely Sport

By Christine Brennan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 16, 1994; Page A1

In figure skating, it has come to this: Hit men. Retractable police batons. And bodyguards. Big, lumbering bodyguards.

What in the world has happened to the refined sport of Sonja Henie, Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill and Katarina Witt?

Times change. And the battles that once took place only on the ice have moved to Madison Avenue as well.

"One of the best-kept secrets in sports is how much money figure skaters make," figure skating agent Michael Rosenberg said yesterday. "Since the mid-1970s, since the time of Dorothy Hamill, top skaters have made over $1 million a year."

The world of sequins has turned to gold. It has been estimated that the Olympic gold medal in women's figure skating can bring as much as $10 million in endorsements and earnings to its winner. Sports agent Jerry Solomon of Arlington-based ProServ said that his client, injured skater Nancy Kerrigan, could earn even more than that, ostensibly because of the public attention and sympathy she has attracted since the Jan. 6 attack that severely bruised her right knee.

One reason the sport is so lucrative is because it is so popular. Television ratings tell the story: In February 1988, the Olympic skating duel between Witt and Debi Thomas attracted the highest Saturday night half-hour share on television since "Roots" 11 years earlier. Last month, a rerun of the skating exhibition from the 1993 world championships easily outdrew a live men's college basketball game between Indiana and Kentucky.

Yet it is hard to draw parallels between skating and other sports when it comes to financial reward. Only in the world's biggest boxing matches is more money on the line for one athlete for one night's work. And boxing is the only other sport that has such a dramatic payoff. In boxing, it can end with one punch. In figure skating, it can end with one fall.

"You can't imagine the pressure," said 1988 Olympic gold medalist Brian Boitano, who, at 30, became a nervous wreck earlier this month just trying to make the 1994 Olympic team. (He succeeded.)

No one yet knows whether money was the motive behind the attack on Kerrigan, which was allegedly planned by Olympic skater Tonya Harding's bodyguard, Shawn Eric Eckardt, and two other men, all of whom have been arrested. It is true that Kerrigan had finished ahead of Harding the past five times they had met on the ice. Neither skated particularly well in 1993, but Kerrigan was slightly favored over Harding to make the 1994 Olympic team.

At the 1992 Olympics, Kerrigan won the bronze medal and Harding finished fourth. There was a vast difference between the two places. Kerrigan signed on to endorse Campbell's Soup, Evian, Xerox, Seiko and Reebok, among others.

Harding went home to a stack of bills. The U.S. Figure Skating Association said she received nearly $40,000 in grants and earnings from November 1992 to October 1993. Her endorsements were nil; her Portland-based fan club continually requests donations to help her.

Money quickly evaporates in skating. The Detroit Free Press reported that Kerrigan pays between $3,000 and $5,000 for a dress. Experts say that expenses for a world-class skater — ranging from ice time and coaching to costumes and travel — can approach $50,000 annually.

So it should come as no surprise that in figure skating, like almost every other sport in the Olympic or professional world, athletes can become preoccupied with money.

"I see those little dollar signs in my head," Harding said to reporters a while ago. "Nancy has already seen some of that."

She will see more.

"If Nancy wins the gold medal, after what has happened, she will be Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill and Kristi Yamaguchi all rolled into one," said Rosenberg, who used to represent Harding.

The financial prospects for Kerrigan and Harding likely would have been different even before the attack on Kerrigan. Although both come from blue-collar backgrounds, the demure, polite Kerrigan has been the darling of the U.S. skating community. Harding, who has a penchant for pool halls and bowling alleys, has never been a favorite of that blue-blooded crowd.

Said one U.S. skating official, who asked to remain anonymous: "Nancy's not from a high-class background, but she's a lovely lady. She was raised as a lady. We all notice that."

In most sports, being ladylike — or gentlemanly — does not matter on the playing field. This is not the case in figure skating.

It always has been such a proper sport. It has maneuvers named for people we don't know. Axels. Salchows. It has judges whose opinions, while nearly impossible to understand, are reflected in the scores they give. It rates athletes on the basis of what they're wearing, what country they're from and if they know which fork to use first. Skating ability has something to do with it too.

The sport is so high-brow that two-time Olympic gold medalist and ABC sportscaster Dick Button doesn't even call himself a commentator. He says he is "a narrator."

It's not all sequins, lace and plunging necklines.

There was speculation at the 1993 U.S. championships that the nine judges purposely lowered scores for then-15-year-old Nicole Bobek because she didn't conform to their lifestyle standards. One of her transgressions? Wearing four earrings in one ear.

"They're sending her a message to tone it down," said a skating insider.

As for Harding, if she, like Bobek, is an outsider, she has reveled in it.

"I don't like to be like anyone else," Harding said at the trials. "I'm my own person. I'll act the way I act."

If rugged individualism isn't a trait of most top skaters, possessing nerves of steel has to be. Their competitions are a contest against their own inner tensions. Whoever doesn't crack, wins. In a split-second, it can be over.

Mark Mitchell, 25, a former U.S. world championship team member, left his longtime coach and his family and moved to Milan in September to train with legendary coach Carlo Fassi. All he did for four months was prepare for the U.S. Olympic trials, where he needed to be one of the top two men to make the trip to Lillehammer, Norway. Such was his devotion that he rarely went out for dinner — even in Italy.

At the trials in Detroit, Mitchell skated onto the ice for the start of his technical program. The music started. He began to loop around, building speed for the most difficult required jump of the competition and the only one with 3½ revolutions, the triple Axel. He took off from the ice. He spun around. He came down — on his hands and knees.

The crowd groaned. Mitchell got up and kept skating. But the fall had been devastating. In 30 seconds, he had gone from being a promising Olympic candidate to an also-ran. He was full of hope when he leaped into the air. He was ruined when he landed. He finished fifth.

Most athletic careers don't rely on one jump, or one anything. Were Dallas Cowboy Leon Lett a figure skater, he never would have had a chance to touch the football after the blocked Miami field goal in that Thanksgiving Day game. He already would have been drummed out of the sport after his first boneheaded move, allowing Buffalo's Don Beebe to strip the ball from him on a touchdown in last year's Super Bowl.

An occasional professional golfer has ruined his or her career in one fell swoop — although they might not realize the significance for years. It happens in gymnastics now and then, although gymnasts have other events in which they can redeem themselves. Boxing has the drama, but it takes two people to produce it.

It's solo in men's and women's figure skating.

Consider the Battle of the Brians at the Calgary Olympics in 1988. Boitano skated first and had the slightest hitch in a triple jump landing. Then came Canada's Brian Orser. Ninety seconds into his program, Orser two-footed a landing on a triple flip. Later on, getting tired, he turned a triple Axel into a double.

Because of Orser's small mistakes, Boitano won the gold and went on to a career in exhibitions and shows that is believed to pay him as much as $1 million a year. Orser is doing the same thing, but his paycheck isn't quite so big.

Figure skating competitions used to be decided in three parts: compulsory (school) figures, the technical (short) program and the free skate (long program). In the summer of 1990, the school figures, which were variations of figure 8s traced on one skate in darkened arenas with judges keenly watching, were eliminated.

A jumping contest ensued.

ABC's Button marvels at what he sees today.

"I broke ground doing one lousy triple jump in the 1952 Olympics," he said recently. "Today, every child can do one."

This is what made Harding famous. In 1991, she became the first U.S. woman to hit the most difficult of triple jumps — the triple Axel — in competition. She won her first national title because of the difficult jump, which requires the skater to take off from a forward position, complete 3½ revolutions and land skating backward. Skating had opened its arms to athleticism, and there was no more athletic female skater in the United States than Harding.

And then there was Kerrigan, more graceful, more polished, with the power to jump. The triple Axel wasn't in her repertoire, but all the other triple jumps were.

Figure skating had made room for both of them. Or so it seemed.

Instead, this week, their careers have turned into a soap opera.

"This is about as good as it gets," said veteran U.S. ice dancer Renee Roca. "There have been some lulus over the years, but this really tops them all."

© Copyright 1994 The Washington Post Company

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