Who can figure skating's stand on the pros?

JOHN EISENBERG

February 14, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

ALBERTVILLE, France -- Men's figure skating began at the Olympics yesterday with the names Viktor Petrenko, Paul Wylie and Kurt Browning underlined. A skater who could beat them all was sitting in the stands.

"It's ridiculous," Brian Boitano said. "An utterly ridiculous situation."

The gold medalist four years ago in Calgary, he is still the varsity to everyone else's junior varsity. But he can't skate here because Olympic skating still isn't completely open to professionals.

Michael Jordan can play Olympic basketball, Chris Evert can play Olympic tennis and any stubble-bearded minor-league goon can play Olympic hockey . . .

. . . "but I can't skate," Boitano said, shaking his head. "It doesn't make sense."

It doesn't. But Boitano, 28, is trapped inside the hopelessly snippy politics of the governing International Skating Union. It allows pros in the Olympics, but not all pros.

"They're the black sheeps at this point," Boitano said of the ISU.

Imagine if things were different. Imagine a men's competition with Boitano, Brian Orser and even Scott Hamilton. Imagine a women's competition with not only Kristi Yamaguchi and Midori Ito, but also Katarina Witt.

"It would be like the World Series," Boitano said as the men skated their original programs last night. "It would be huge. Awesome. The sport is already big, but this would make it bigger."

Which begs the question: Why doesn't it happen? Why does skating insist on these prohibitory rules when wide-open professionalism is accepted everywhere else in the Games?

The best answer is this: Skating is what it is, a childish web of politics, pettiness and egos, and woe unto those improperly aligned.

"They want to control you," Boitano said of the ISU, "and I just refuse to be controlled. So I'm speaking out. I hope things will change."

What happened was Boitano turned pro after winning the gold, competing on a pro championship tour promoted by Dick Button, the broadcaster. The ISU was furious with Button for stealing a big name from the ISU's big-revenue "Tour of Olympic Champions."

But the ISU did recognize that amateur sports were changing, and here is where it really gets petty. The ISU relented and passed a rule saying skaters could win prize money and still skate in the Olympics, but there was a catch: The prize money could come only from ISU-sanctioned events, and the ISU, still angry, refused to sanction Button's tour.

When the ISU finally did give in and sanction Button's tour a year later, it refused to pardon the skaters who had competed on it before the rules were changed. This wasn't exactly singling out Boitano, but close.

His point is this: Why are they putting the hammer on a popular skater who has done so much for the sport?

"It's baffling," he said. "I can't claim to understand it."

The best explanation is that Boitano is an iconoclast in a conservative sport. He started his own tour of exhibitions instead of joining one of the old standbys, such as Ice Capades. (His tour is in its fourth year, thriving.) He rejects the sport's traditions. So maybe the sport is getting revenge.

"I could win a lawsuit, no doubt, considering how all the other sports are open to pros," Boitano said. "But I can't go to court if I still want to compete one day. It's a subjective sport, and the judges are ISU officials. They could just brutalize me."

What he hopes to do, he said, is organize the top skaters and start their own pro tour, much as the tennis players took over the men's tennis tour. The ISU would have to relent.

"It's all about power and money," Boitano said. "The ISU has controlled the skaters' lives for years, and now it doesn't want to admit that things have changed, that once we win an Olympic title we're bigger than it is."

Understand, Boitano's rebelliousness is not driven by a greedy desire for more Olympic gold. While it's almost a given that he'd win were he eligible -- he is the best jumper in the sport's history, flawless and elegant and even better now than four years ago -- but he had his defining moment in Calgary.

"I can't possibly top that," he said. "I built up to that for years and skated my best at the most important moment, which is the dream. I'm satisfied. I'd just enjoy competing again. I also would like to change the sport for the better. It's time."

Meanwhile, he is spending these Olympics practicing, watching the competition from the stands and writing a column for USA Today. It isn't as frustrating as he thought it would be, he said.

"It feels like I'm just sitting this out and I'll be back in 1994," he said, referring to the next Olympics in Norway in 1994.

But will he be back?

8, "I should be," he said. "But who knows?"

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