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 today at the NEC Arena.
On the ice, women’s favorite Surya Bonaly will be out to prove she can balance her outstanding jumping 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 offered 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.
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.”
That should suit Lu Chen, the Olympic bronze medalist from China who skates a beautiful line yet can still do the jumps. There should also be a strong challenge from Russia’s Olga Markova.
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 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.”