It's too hard to figure, but Baiul won it

February 26, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

HAMAR, Norway -- As much as the evidence points to such a conclusion, Nancy Kerrigan didn't get jobbed last night.

You just can't say that.

Yes, it was true that a clean sweep of judges from old Eastern-bloc nations gave Oksana Baiul of the Ukraine a blade-thin, politically suspicious win in the Olympic skating competition. But to cry foul is to cry that Baiul was the inferior skater, and that simply wasn't the case.

Baiul is a skating Amadeus who stole Kerrigan's gold with a performance that will go down among the most remarkable in the annals of the sport, not for its quality so much as its resourcefulness.

Three minutes into her four-minute long program, Baiul knew that she was going to lose the gold if she skated out her planned routine. She was not skating badly, but she had failed to land two key elements, a triple toe jump and a combination jump. So, she started improvising.

To borrow an analogy from football, she started drawing plays in the dirt. Making it up as she went along. In the last two minutes of the Super Bowl, basically.

With 50 seconds to go, she took another crack at the triple toe jump, knowing that she had to hit one, as Kerrigan had, to have a chance.

She nailed it.

Then, with 30 seconds to go, she remembered that she also hadn't completed a combination jump, as Kerrigan had.

She nailed that, too.

Neither had been in the routine that she had practiced for months back home in Odessa, but, at 16 years old, she had the presence of mind to know what she had to do to give herself a chance to win.

Joe Montana couldn't have done it better.

When she was finished, Baiul had made up the distance that had existed between her and Kerrigan a minute earlier. Both had hit five triples during their program. Both had hit a combination jump. Yes, Kerrigan's combination was tougher -- two triple jumps, as opposed to Baiul's two doubles -- but that advantage was offset by Baiul's superior spins and footwork.

It was pretty much a draw, in other words, and the opinions of the nine judges reflected that. Four (from the United States, Canada, Britain and Japan) preferred Kerrigan, and four (from Poland, China, the Czech Republic and Ukraine) preferred Baiul. And you thought the Cold War was dead.

The ninth judge, a German -- a former East German -- scored both skaters the same. According to the rules of the International Skating Union, the tiebreaker is the score the judge gave for artistic impression.

The German judge, a man named Jan Hoffman, gave Baiul a 5.9 and Kerrigan a 5.8 for artistry. That put the German on Baiul's side, making the difference. Five judges for Baiul, four for Kerrigan.

One tenth of a point gave Baiul the gold.

Of course, we can argue forever about whether Kerrigan would have won had Jan Hoffman grown up in West Germany instead of East Germany. That's certainly the story as Oliver Stone would have filmed it.

But who knows? It's not as if the Eastern-bloc judges voted for some piker who fell on her rear. Baiul is a nimble marvel with a star presence. The skating cognoscenti goes glassy-eyed when talking about her talent.

She is a better skater than Kerrigan. Please understand that. She is a natural; Kerrigan is self-made. Kerrigan can't skate better than she did last night -- she was superb -- yet her foot speed and overall movements and artistry didn't match Baiul's.

Sure, it is easy to build a case for Kerrigan deserving the gold. The combination jump she landed -- a triple toe-triple toe, for those scoring at home -- was not just tougher than Baiul's, but also tougher than the combinations in most men's programs.

"I've never done it," said Paul Wylie, the men's silver medalist in Albertville, and Kerrigan's close friend. "I'm sorry, but it should have put her over the top."

But the truth was that the two skaters were too even to call with the naked eye, which meant it came down to the judges, which meant a debate was inevitable.

The scoring rules are so complicated and confusing that Baiul broke down sobbing when her marks were first shown on the scoreboard. She was the winner, yet she thought she had lost.

Please, don't even begin trying to apply logic to the judging. You can go around and around forever. The British judge gave France's Surya Bonaly a much better technical mark than Baiul (5.8 to 5.6) on a night when Bonaly fell on one jump and failing to cleanly land two others. It makes no sense.

And you thought this mess was going to have a nice, neat ending. Haven't you been paying attention? After the prelude to this competition, something weird was bound to happen.

If Kerrigan was upset, she didn't show it.

She admitted that she thought she'd skated a gold medal routine as she left the ice -- "in my heart and my mind, yes, I did" -- but she wasn't complaining.

"I skated great," she said. "I'm really, really proud of myself. It shows how strong I am and how ready I was for the competition."

She was. She just didn't win. And she didn't complain because she couldn't complain.

FREE-PROGRAM SCORES

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.