Bobek adds thrill to theatre of chill

Mark Burton sees ice skating's leading figures on show at Birmingham's NEC

If it is ice skating, there must be a controversy. This is not exactly fair comment, but it is an easy mistake to make.

As the World Figure Skating Championships begin at the National Exhibition Centre today, the sport is facing a different kind of difficulty. It used to be that the problems centred on judging and interpretation, as in Torvill and Dean's highly successful reshaping of ice dancing, which did not meet everyone's approval inside the sport in the mid-1980s, and the couple were unable to fathom the preferences of the powers that be on their brief return last year.

Then, of course, came Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan and suddenly the sport that is theatre became the event that is prurience. Now figure skating is blessed with the talents of Nicole Bobek. Just when it seemed it was safe to go back in the ice-rink there appeared another monster from the murky depths.

But how murky and how monstrous is this 17-year-old, who sliced through sentimentality to win the United States title last month by out-skating Michelle Kwan, the girl who had waited in vain for Harding to be thrown out of the 1994 Olympics?

This year the throne from which Harding was unceremoniously removed awaited her, only for Bobek to slide on to it. But no sooner was the crown on Bobek's head than the stories started. She was a wild child, she had been found in a fellow skater's home, uninvited, money in hand. She was this, she was that.

She was relaxed and terribly normal-looking when she walked into a news conference at the NEC yesterday, feigning amazement that such a large crowd of reporters had gathered to hear her.

"The last two weeks have been very difficult for me and I have grown a lot as a result," she said. "All of you are aware of the things that have been brought up in the media and I would like to say that there is nothing new."

Perhaps so, but there was plenty that made news and it was presented in the way that any juicy tale will be.

Alongside Bobek's tale of woe, the comment by one of her rivals for the women's title, Lu Chen, that "I had quite a few problems" seemed almost laughable. But then, of course, she was talking about her skating in the qualifying session. Bobek had a few problems of that nature, too, but she shrugged those off as easily as she has dismissed those she has met with off the ice.

That impressed her coach, Richard Callaghan. "I was glad to see that when she did have a problem that it didn't really interfere with the programme," he said. "Any time that there was something that went downhill she came right back up again, and that hasn't always happened in the past."

Presumably, she skated her planned routines precisely, without impromptu variations, and that has not always happened in the past, either.

Neither Kwan nor Surya Bonaly, the European champion from France who took off her silver medal at the presentation ceremony last year after missing out on the world title to Yuka Sato, of Japan, have yet been forced into action here. Both were among the eight automatic qualifiers. Britain's Jenna Arrowsmith finished outside the top 11 who qualified from each group. But as the host nation's only representative, the 14-year-old will be allowed to enjoy her first World Championship.

Oksana Baiul, the Olympic champion who is taking a year out to perform in events outside the International Skating Union's control, misses the event. The Ukrainian needs to apply for reinstatement by the end of the month if she is to return to ISU-sanctioned events next year and pursue the amateur world title again. She cashed in on her Olympic gold by taking advantage of the vast increase in professional competitions and shows that were sparked by the huge attention drawn to the sport by the Harding- Kerrigan affair.

As Carlo Fassi, who coached John Curry, among other Olympic champions, has said: "It's very sad that to make skating popular we needed someone to beat up another one.

"There is another world now. It's very good for skating, but they are overexposing it."

In this country it takes something more wholesome, like a world or Olympic champion, to generate interest in a sport, and many will have been drawn to ice skating by Torvill and Dean. The championships will open with a reminder of them when the current crop of couples skate through the compulsory dances, which this time are the swinging and sweeping rumba and the more aggressively sexual Argentinian tango.

Now that Evgeny Platov has overcome his knee injury, he and his partner, Oksana Gritchuk, are back on the title trail after missing the European Championships. They should be pushed hard by the French pair, Sophie Moniotte and Pascal Lavanchy, who took silver last year, and the Finns Susanna Rakhamo and Petri Kokko, who beat the French to the European title last month.

Michelle Fitzgerald and Vincent Kyle, who finished 18th in the European Championship, carry the flag for Britain in their first world event.

The first day of competition ends with the short programme of the pairs, which was thrown wide open when the Germans, Mandy Wtzel and Ingo Stuer, took the European title. To do so they had to beat the world champions, Evgenia Shiskova and Vadim Naumov, who come from the traditional pairs power, Russia, and last year's world silver medallists, Radka Kovarikova and Rene Novotny, of the Czech Republic.

Here Britain is represented by Lesley Rogers and Michael Aldred. Since they hail from Solihull, they did not have to go far. But then again they might.

WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP

PROGRAMME

TODAY: Ice dance, two compulsory dances (11.30am). Opening ceremony (6.30pm). Pairs, short programme (7.15).

TOMORROW: Men, short programme (2.0). Pairs, free programme (6.30).

THURSDAY: Ice dance, original programme (2.0). Men's event, free programme (6.30).

FRIDAY: Women's event, short programme (2.0). Ice dance, free programme (6.30).

SATURDAY: Women's event, free programme (1.30).

SUNDAY: Gala exhibition (2.0).

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