Putting a new identity on ice won't be easy job

October 28, 1994|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Writer

PITTSBURGH — The ice is pristine again. Tonya Harding is in exile. Nancy Kerrigan is skating professionally. Time has smoothed over the rough spots like some cosmic Zamboni, but that has left the once-regal sport of figure skating to ponder an uncertain future.

The Tonya/Nancy affair may have given it a black eye, but the scandal also created an attention glut that put figure skating at the center of the sporting universe for several months.

Now, as a new season begins with the Sudafed Skate America competition at the Pittsburgh Civic Arena, the sport -- and the U.S. Figure Skating Association that controls it in this country -- must fashion a new identity.

Can it make something lasting out of the heightened level of interest that carried through the 1994 Winter Olympics? Or will the legacy of Tonyagate be an American public more interested in soap opera than the athletic artistry that had long sustained figure skating as one of the most popular Olympic sports?

USFSA president Claire Ferguson doesn't seem concerned. Figure skating enjoyed a solid following long before Tonya or Nancy first pulled on a pair of skates. The scandal only multiplied that interest, which Ferguson says will have a positive long-term impact on the sport.

"It'll be good," she said. "It created a great deal of interest. It was a terrible thing for the person involved, but it created interest and it created curiosity. People who didn't know anything about figure skating began to ask questions. From what I'm hearing from rink managers and club programs, there is a big increase in kids getting involved in skating, which may help not only figure skating, but hockey and other skating sports."

If that is the case, figure skating can look forward to a talent boom over the next decade or so, but the immediate impact will be harder to gauge.

It may depend on the talent. The personality of the sport depends on the personalities within it, and that could become a problem for the USFSA. The "graduation" of skaters such as Kerrigan, Harding and Brian Boitano has left a human-interest gap in the U.S. amateur ranks, but it may be filled as a new class of athletes work toward the 1998 Winter Olympics.

That is nothing new, but the impact of it may be exaggerated by an influx of new figure skating fans who do not understand the natural attrition that occurs after each Olympic year. The top Olympic stars generally move into the professional ranks, leaving a younger group to develop.

"This is expected," Ferguson said. "It's like it's always been. People who are new to the sport haven't seen the cyclical nature of the growth. We're excited to see what new people are coming along."

The Skate America competition is the first national amateur event of the 1994-95 season, and it features top name performers from the United States and abroad. The event began last night with the compulsory segment of the ice dancing competition, and the short programs for men and pairs.

On the first night, American Todd Eldredge generated plenty of excitement. He got a standing ovation and a string of 5.9s to emerge as the clear leader after the men's short program. Jerod Swallow and Elizabeth Punsalan led after the dance, and Marina Eltsova and Andrey Bushkov performed the top short program in pairs.

The competition continues tonight with the second dance program and the ladies short program before wrapping up tomorrow with the free skating and free dance competitions. The weekend concludes with an exhibition on Sunday afternoon.

It is one of only four major U.S. events scheduled for network television this season, but the proliferation of professional exhibitions and unsanctioned events made possible by the recent relaxation of the sport's amateur eligibility requirements could water down television ratings and dilute the amateur talent pool.

"Before the [Kerrigan] incident we already had embarked upon a contract with TV," Ferguson said. "It's not like we're flooding the markets. We're televising four events -- the U.S. Championships, Skate America and two pro-ams. It's not an every weekend thing, though there are some promoters who would like it to be."

Punsalan and Swallow, who registered five top scores to lead the dance after the first compulsory routine last night, acknowledged that the increased interest in skating -- and the increase in the number of professional and amateur events -- could have a downside.

"As far as the networks getting saturated, it really was the only way the sport could go with the rise in popularity over the last two years," Swallow said. "You have to hope skaters will be able to get enough new material together, so people won't be seeing the same stuff every week."

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