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Figure Skating Changes as Political Barriers Fall

February 3, 1990

LENINGRAD, U.S.S.R (AP) _ The political upheavals in Eastern Europe are shaking the ice in Leningrad this week.

The European Figure Skating Championships are seeing some of the first signs of changes in sports resulting from the end of dictatorships from East Berlin to Bucharest.

The signs are everywhere.

Above the ice hangs the Romanian flag, minus the coat of arms of the old Socialist Republic.

At one end of the arena is Irina Rodnina, the three-time gold medalist in pairs from the Soviet Union.

She is discussing her upcoming move to the United States, to become the first Soviet coach to teach skaters in America.

On the ice, a Soviet and a Czechoslovak teamed under a special International Skating Union designation.

East German and West German skaters started the week as rivals from different countries. By the end of the week, there were indications that they might be competing for the same country soon as East German Premier Hans Modrow called for a unification of the two Germanys.

Eastern skaters remain competitive. The Soviet Union swept the pairs event and will dominate the dance event. And even though Katarina Witt has moved on to the pros, there is still an East German women’s champion.

Evelyn Grossmann surprised to capture the title. She is another student of Jutta Mueller, who also taught Witt as well as 1980 Olympic champion Annett Poetzsch.

But Uwe Kagelmann, a bronze medalist in the pairs event in the 1972 and 1976 Olympics and now a top official in the East German skating federation, sees the changes in East Germany affecting the sport.

″It will be more difficult to keep up the performance,″ he said. ″We are a small nation but we were second in the Olympics. But now it will be hard to keep second.

″Now the people want to get involved. Just two months ago the figure skating rinks were open to the public for the first time. Before they were open, only the elite athletes used them. Now the people come because they want to skate. And they like it.″

It is this change in attitude, from elitist to universal participation, that will have the greatest impact on Eastern European sports, Kagelmann said.

″Before the changes, the main point of our system was high performance in sports,″ he said. ″The government pushed a few kinds of sports and a lot of others, which did not produce results, were neglected.

″The danger now after the changes is that all the sports are now getting equal opportunities. There will be a change now to the team sports.″

A united Germany would, in all likelihood, be a figure-skating super-power.

Following Witt’s six-year reign as European champion, West Germans took first and third in the women’s event in 1989. This year Grossmann won and West Germany’s Marina Kielmann took third.

″With a united team, it would be as competitive to make the national team here like it is in the United States. That could only help our skating,″ Mueller said.

Mueller was surprised with the news of Modrow’s call for German unification.

″I am an old woman. The young people can react more spontaneously,″ Mueller, 61, said. ″But it would be difficult for me to see a common skating championship for the Germanys next year.″

Kagelmann defended the elite status that East Germany gave to its top athletes.

″To train the top sportsman takes a lot. Not only time, but a lot of money, coaches,″ he said. ″It is like a famous singer or actor or dancer. They are honored for their work and for a sportsman it is work to get to the top of the world.″

The work is hard, especially when competing at a top level during the years others go to high school.

The Soviet Union’s Ekaterina Gordeeva, at 18 already an Olympic and three- time world champion in pairs with Sergei Grinkov, is finding it difficult.

″To tell the truth, for the last year or so, it’s been a little tough for me,″ Gordeeva said. ″I have become more sensible. When I was little, I never thought about things. Now I have to think things over again and again.″

Now the Soviets have other options.

Two ice shows in the Soviet Union have been formed in the last few years that have taken the top stars of the last two Olympics.

The 1984 pair champions Elena Valova and Oleg Vasiliev and the 1988 ice dance gold medalist, Natalia Bestimianova and Andrei Bukin, perform in these shows.

Instead of staying in competition well past their prime, the Soviet skaters can now turn to the ice shows.

Sometimes it is a chance to get out of the country and stay. During a Soviet tour of the United States, four skaters and an official stayed behind.

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