Different Directions for Skating at World Championships
BIRMINGHAM, England (AP) _ Grace vs. athleticism. Artistry vs. jumps. Missing stars vs. future stars. Prize money vs. the status quo.
Figure skating, a sport in transition and struggling with growing pains, will be looking to find the right balance in all these areas and more at the World Championships beginning Sunday at the NEC Arena.
On the ice, women’s favorite Surya Bonaly will be out to prove she can balance her outstanding jumping ability with an elegance she has yet to display at the Olympics or worlds.
Off the ice, the International Skating Union will decide how to react to the explosion of unsanctioned, made-for-TV competitions that have sprung up the past year.
The big money on offer from such competitions, a by-product of the huge TV ratings at last year’s Olympics, has lured some of the biggest names away from the ISU’s eligible status for the worlds and the Olympics.
The ISU, whose top committees will meet throughout the championships, will stubbornly refuse to make it easier for those skaters to return. Instead, the ISU is expected to start offering prize money of its own to keep its new stars around longer.
Bonaly has come to symbolize the view from many critics that skating has become nothing but a jumping contest, missing the elaborate tracings and elegant lines once considered integral to the sport.
This year, the 21-year-old French skater has come up with a routine to gypsy music that’s more to her style. It won over the judges last month at Dortmund, Germany, as she won her fifth consecutive European title.
``I’ve always learned a lot and tried to improve and develop as a personality,″ Bonaly said. ``I’ve been working a lot on that because the judges always have considered it a fault of mine.″
But she hasn’t won over everybody. Carlo Fassi, who coached Peggy Fleming and Dorothy Hamill to Olympic gold, watched the Dortmund performance and feels it’s still too much of the same old Bonaly.
``She works incredibly hard but there are silly things,″ Fassi said. ``She goes into jumps stiffly with her hands down at her sides _ telegraphing. It’s stupid. The judges, naturally, prefer the way the Russians approach a move with grace, with pleasing balletic arm moves.″
Bonaly has failed to win a medal in two Olympics. Her only top-three finish at the worlds was a silver last year, when she pouted and took the medal off her neck on the podium because she felt the judges had robbed her of the gold.
Bonaly lost to the more graceful Yuka Sato of Japan. According to Fassi, ``The same thing will happen in Birmingham with Lu Chen.″
Lu, the Olympic bronze medalist from China, skates a beautiful line yet can still do the jumps. There should also be a strong challenge from Russia’s Olga Markova, who enchanted the audience at the Europeans with a pair of sensual routines that placed her second to Bonaly.
The Americans, 17-year-old U.S. champion Nicole Bobek and 14-year-old Michelle Kwan, are a study in contrast. Kwan has the jumps, Bobek the elegance, and both will be looking to add valuable experience with an eye on the 1998 Olympics. A medal here would be a bonus.
The women’s field is missing Olympic champion Oksana Baiul, who spent the the year making some $2 million doing tours on the made-for-TV circuit. The Ukrainian skater is expected to apply for ISU reinstatement in April, but other big names such as Nancy Kerrigan and Midiro Ito are gone for good.
Skating insiders say the ISU will eventually have to throw open its competitions to all competitors to keep attracting the big names and big audiences.
ISU vice president Lawrence Demmy says that will never happen.
``We don’t need these skaters,″ Demmy said. ``We will carry on without these skaters. Whatever they want to do, that’s their free choice.
``Through the years, we’ve always had new skaters come along. We’ve continued to produce great new stars. The old ones, well, they go and they do what they want to do.″
One field that still looks strong is the men, despite an injury to defending champion Elvis Stojko of Canada.
Stojko has been working with a martial arts instructor to strengthen knee and ankle muscles hurt while practicing for the Canadian nationals in January.
``It’s still sore,″ Stojko said. ``When I do something, it gets tired sometimes and then it starts to hurt really bad. It’s a really painful thing.″
With Stojko skating in pain, the favorites are Olympic champion Alexei Urmanov and his 17-year-old teammate Ilia Kulik, who became Russia’s latest phenom when he won the European gold last month. Todd Eldredge, who came back from three years of injury, illness and inconsistency to win the U.S. title last month, could also win a place on the podium with his ``Gettysburg″ routine.
Olympic and defending world champions Oksana Gritschuk and Yevgeny Platov of Russia are the favorites to win the dance, even though Platov’s been nursing a knee injury that kept the pair out of the Europeans.
French duo Sophie Moniotte and Pascal Lavanchy have a jazzy routine that could cause an upset, and Susanna Rahkamo and Petri Kokko of Finland and Americans Renee Roca and Gorsha Sur should also be in the hunt.
The pairs field is considerably weak in this post-Olympic year, with any of four couples in with a chance for the gold.
It could be a matter of whether the judges prefer the eclectic mood of European champions Mandy Woetzel and Ingo Steuer of Germany; the emotional, but technically-lacking classical routine of Americans Jenni Meno and Todd Sand; or the more lively and traditional performances expected from Czech pair Radka Kovarikova and Rene Novotny and defending champions Yevgenia Shishkova and Vadim Naumov of Russia.
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