Button's figure skating commentary relegated to a Manhattan living room

February 23, 1992|By Richard Sandomir | Richard Sandomir,New York Times News Service

The dinner party, with a dozen guests' eyes trained on women's figure skating from the Winter Olympics, had just started when Dick Button was asked, "If we turn the sound off on the television, can you call this for us?"

Button stared straight ahead and smiled. He kept listening to CBS' Verne Lundquist and Scott Hamilton. The volume was up.

For the first time since 1972, when NBC had the Winter Olympics, Button was watching Axels and Lutzes, not calling them for ABC. But the Olympic figure-skating gold medalist (1948 and 1952) isn't pining to be in Albertville.

"It's nice to be here watching it from a relaxed point of view," he said, sitting forward on a sofa, "and not where one ear has the director talking, one eye is on the monitor and one eye is on what's happening on the ice."

Button is busy. Last week, he was in Cancun, Mexico, producing the 20th edition of "The Jeep Superstars," the grandpa of trash sports. This week he was pictured in People magazine bussing his goat, Knickerbocker, at his upstate New York home. And he's an investor in a Broadway musical, "The High Roller Social and Pleasure Club," scheduled to open in April.

So here, in the West Side apartment of his friends Evelyn Kramer, a figure-skating coach, and her husband, Richard, Button appears satisfied to observe, rather than analyze. If only everybody would stay quiet.

"That's a Vera Wang dress!" Evelyn Kramer said excitedly, about American skater Nancy Kerrigan's elegant yellow ensemble, by the noted bridal designer.

"Shhhh!" Button cautioned, then said quietly, "They put sleeves on that dress instead of. . . ."

"Chiffon," said Kramer.

Skaters' attire interests Button. Does it matter if they dress elegantly, ostentatiously or provocatively?

"The dress helps," said Button. "The easiest thing is to get here. dTC The hardest is to get that last 1 percent. You can't have anything out of place. Tonya Harding's dresses don't help."

Button enjoyed Kerrigan's second-place performance, although it didn't awe him. But he was loath to be critical. Button in a living room with a dozen other guests isn't as biting as Button beside Jim McKay.

"Nancy put it together beautifully," he said. "You can't say what she lacked for. The easy thing is to nit-pick. Sometimes it's hard to be positive when you should be positive."

Tonya Harding started her original program with a burst of energy.

"Did you see the speed she had on that spin?" Button said. "Tonya's a wonderful athlete. But she's got the whole schmear. She's out with her husband and in with her husband. In with her teacher, out with her teacher. In with her father, out with her father."

Harding fell on a triple Axel. Hamilton said she was "tilted in the air."

"But do you know why she fell?" Button asked.

"When she was jumping," said Kramer, "she was already rotating when she went into her jump." Added Button: "Same thing happened with Kurt Browning. They leaned because they were overrotated."

American Kristi Yamaguchi's musical choice, Strauss' "Blue Danube Waltz," was important to her winning the original program, blending with her smooth, fluid style of skating, Button said.

"Music is tough to pick," he said. "Most of the time, the music does them in before they even start. But you can sway with Yamaguchi's music."

Button rose from his seat to spread cheese on a cracker, as the Canadian skater Josee Chouinard performed.

"You're supposed to be commentating," Button is reminded.

"Not on her," he said.

The dinner party quieted as Midori Ito of Japan skated.

"Look at the speed of that spin," said Button. "No one talks about the speed. They might as well not have done it all."

The talk had been that Ito would perform a triple Axel, but that she was leaning toward a triple Lutz. "She should go with the Axel," said Button, almost inaudibly, his eyes fixed on the screen.

Ito fell, trying to land the Lutz.

"Poor dear," he said, adding: "You've prepared. You know what's worked in practice and then she changed." Button knows about last-minute changes. "I didn't have my double Axel until the day before the 1948 Olympics," he said. "I never got it clean until that day."

Surya Bonaly of France, known for her jumps, was now on the ice, clad in a gaudy blue ensemble. "Do you think that dress helps her?" Button said disapprovingly.

Button was unimpressed with her jumps and her skating. "She can't jump," he said. "Everyone says she can. Look at that one. It just stopped. It's awkward. How can you say it's clean?" As Bonaly came out of a spin, Button noted her leg position: "Look at her leg. It looks like a hunk of sausage."

Talk momentarily turned to a silly matter, namely how John Madden would cover ice skating. Button rose to the challenge: "Boy, that fall by Ito really cleared her sinuses!"

After an evening's worth of skating, Button observed that Yamaguchi's winning original program was more than just the best-skated one.

"The only real program was Yamaguchi's," he said. "It had a beginning, a middle and an end. It was related to the person. The rest were chopped up, unrelated to the skaters."

And that's all the Dick Button we'll get for these Winter Olympics.

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