With big money as the reward, female skaters live by the Olympic golden rule

January 14, 1994|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

Sonja Henie moved to Hollywood to make movies and millions. Dorothy Hamill turned a camel spin and a wedge haircut into a career selling hair-care products. And Katarina Witt leaped across the remnants of the Berlin Wall to skate for cash and Coca-Cola.

To win the Olympic gold medal in women's figure skating is not just the realization of a dream, but it also is a lifetime contract that all but guarantees fame and fortune.

It was pursuit of the gold, and the accompanying millions of dollars, that served as the background to the alleged plot to injure figure skating star Nancy Kerrigan. No one yet knows the motive that may have driven those around Ms. Kerrigan's chief rival, Tonya Harding, to orchestrate the assault, as they reportedly did.

Regardless of who is involved, millions of dollars are at stake.

According to sports agents, the women's Olympic gold medalist can expect to earn between $10 million and $15 million in a four-year period through endorsements, appearance fees and television specials.

But if Ms. Kerrigan ultimately can come back and win a gold medal in figure skating, the value of the prize would escalate dramatically.

"If Nancy wins, she'll be Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill and Katarina Witt all rolled into one," said Michael Rosenberg, an agent who formerly represented Harding.

Tom Collins, organizer of an annual tour of Olympic and world champion stars, said Ms. Kerrigan could become the most prized performer in sports if she won the gold.

"She would surpass Sonja Henie," Mr. Collins said.

It was Ms. Henie, the Norwegian native who won three Olympics golds, who created the image of the modern skating champion.

She was the ice princess who ruled a sport and ultimately transferred her charisma and style to the movies and the ice-show circuit.

Ms. Henie starred in a series of lucrative Hollywood movies during the 1930s and 1940s. She also packed arenas coast to coast in ice shows, becoming a heroine for a generation of little girls.

It was more than three decades before another performer would supplant Ms. Henie as the unquestioned star of skating. Peggy Fleming, wearing a homemade dress and a smile, rocketed to fame by winning 1968 Olympic gold in Grenoble, France.

Within a year, she headlined an ice show and began starring in a series of television specials.

"It was a different era back then," Mr. Collins said. "There was less television. Less money. Sometimes, we'd have more skaters than spectators in the audience."

Times definitely have changed.

Mr. Collins is preparing a post-Olympic skating tour through 60 American cities, including dates in domes in Syracuse, N.Y.; San Antonio, Texas; New Orleans and Tacoma, Wash.

The tour, with Ms. Kerrigan headlining, is due in Baltimore April 17.

"Skating has gotten so popular, mainly because of the television exposure," Mr. Collins said. "The Kerrigan thing really put it on the map worldwide. It's not just an American thing anymore.

"TV has really made this sport," Mr. Collins said. "The feats and revolutions are different, too. It used to be a big thing to do a single axel, a 1 1/2 -revolution jump. Now, these kids are out there doing quadruple jumps."

Even without winning a gold medal, Ms. Kerrigan and other skaters already have benefited from the relaxed amateur standards spread throughout Olympic sports. Athletes can earn cash and retain their Olympic eligibility, a movement begun in 1980 and now spread to all sports.

According to Ms. Kerrigan's agent, Jerry Solomon, she earns in the "mid-to-upper six figures" endorsing a range of products from Campbell's Soup to Reebok shoes.

But after the attack, Ms. Kerrigan may find herself even richer -- assuming she can recapture her form.

"I think that Nancy is today the most marketable female athlete in the U.S. and perhaps the world," Mr. Solomon said last week after the attack. "A gold medal makes her far and away the most marketable of all the Winter Olympic athletes. Our strategy was not to see how many more endorsement deals she could do. We wanted events, TV shows, licensing deals."

All of that is now on hold.

Ms. Kerrigan is hurt, trying to rehabilitate her ailing right knee in time for next month's Olympics.

And Ms. Harding, a skater who had endured years of money woes while rising to the top of her sport, faces an uncertain future.

Last week, she had talked fervently of trying to win a gold medal and create a post-Olympic career.

And now?

"I would say it's over for Tonya, no matter what," Mr. Collins said. "Needless to say, she won't be on the tour. They would boo her off the ice."

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