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Figure Skating Has Earned Some Low Marks in 1994

April 2, 1994

Undated (AP) _ While figure skating is drawing more TV viewers and sponsorship dollars than ever before, a few skaters are whining like never before.

In a year that saw a Tonya Harding implicated in plotting an attack on Nancy Kerrigan, and Kerrigan make spiteful comments about the woman who beat her in the Olympics, a podium protest by a second-place finisher was the last thing figure skating’s tarnished image needed.

France’s Surya Bonaly threw a fit at the World Championships in Japan last weekend, refusing to wear her silver medal.

″It was the wrong time and wrong place to do a pout,″ said Michael Rosenberg, an agent who represents top figure skaters. ″The timing was terrible. The whole world was going, ’Here we go again.‴

During the medal ceremony, a tearful Bonaly initially refused to stand on the podium beneath gold medalist Yuka Sato of Japan. Olaf Poulsen, president of the International Skating Union, put the medal around Bonaly’s neck, then forcibly led her onto the stand, where she immediately removed the medal.

Boos rained down from the crowd.

″I was just trying to say, ’It’s not fair,‴ said Bonaly, who later apologized to Poulsen, Sato and the Japanese people. ″I wanted the judges to know I thought the scores weren’t right.″

Bonaly’s antics even topped the whining by British ice dancers Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean after finishing third at the Olympics. T&D’s solution to not winning was to take their skates and go pro again, and Bonaly may do the same.

Skating officials have noticed more complaining about judging, and said that may be a by-product of the sport’s success.

″The top ones, they have so many agents and are making so much money,″ said Margaret Ann Wier, an Olympic judge.

Figure skating has become much more athletic since dropping of compulsory figures in 1990. And more training money from the U.S. Figure Skating Association means you don’t have to be well-heeled to participate. These changes, Rosenberg said, are bringing more diversity to the sport.

″The sport of figure skating has a higher percentage of well-educated, intelligent, nice people from nice families in it,″ he said. ″With the big TV money and big federation money, that means a broader spectrum of people in it. There will be kooks, rebels, interesting people.″

In Bonaly’s case, she was controversial well before Harding reached previously unheard-of heights of figure skating notoriety.

The French skater first claimed to be from the island of Reunion, then acknowledged she was adopted in Nice. She was accused of playing dirty by trying to psych out a rival at the 1992 Olympics when she performed an illegal back flip dangerously close to Midori Ito during a practice session. The stunt drew her a warning from skating officials.

And to the continuing chagrin of French skating officials, Bonaly is coached by her mother, who has no background in figure skating.

″Surya is fabulous, but she is poorly guided,″ said Didier Gailhaguet, the French team leader and Bonaly’s coach before she fired him after the Albertville Games. ″It’s a big mess.″

At Lillehammer, Torvill and Dean may have had a legitimate beef about the fuzzy rules governing ice dancing. But in Japan, Bonaly, a fourth-place finisher at the Olympics, made a mistake: She touched her hand to the ice on a jump, while Sato performed cleanly.

Despite an array of difficult triple jumps, Bonaly skated slowly through the middle and end of her program, while Sato picked up speed in the last minute of her routine.

The judging was close; Sato got five first-place votes to Bonaly’s four, and one judge put Bonaly third. The French skater’s artistic marks were well below those for technical merit.

″I think she was expecting to win, because so many who had beaten her before weren’t there,″ Wier said. All three Olympic medalists skipped the worlds.

Bonaly’s lapse in sportsmanship follows griping by Kerrigan, who appeared the perfect ice princess after coming back from the clubbing attack in January. After losing to Ukrainian Oksana Baiul at Lillehammer, Kerrigan complained during a delay in starting the medal ceremony that Baiul was slowing down the show.

Later, the American kvetched about the judging.

In the most tumultuous year in the history of figure skating, there may be one more controversy to come. The U.S. Figure Skating Association is looking into whether Harding, who pleaded guilty to hindering the prosecution in the Kerrigan attack, should be stripped of her national title.

With all this going on, can the graceful discipline rebound from its season of infamy? Kathy Casey, who coaches U.S. champion Scott Davis, said a few ″kooks among us″ won’t spoil the sport.

″There’s enough Scott Davises and (1992 silver medalist) Paul Wylies out there to make up for it,″ she said. ″We’ll be fine.″

As an agent, Rosenberg doesn’t mind controversy when it produces the kind of TV audience - 1 billion worldwide for the Olympics - figure skating has drawn recently.

″At least figure skating isn’t boring,″ he said. ″If it was once, it isn’t now.″

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