Comment: Breaking the ice barrier

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TORVILL and Dean's anguished comeback has reached the point we have all been waiting for. Tomorrow we shall know whether Let's Face the Music and Dance has done for them what Bolero did 10 years ago. If they become Olympic champions again, and it is a big if after Friday's disappointing compulsory programme and considering their current mental state, it will be one of the great achievements of British sport.

But while they hope to skate their way into history, it is worth asking whether Torvill and Dean should even be having the opportunity to repeat their 1984 Sarajevo triumph in Lillehammer in 1994.

Torvill and Dean turned professional 10 years ago. They left behind the world of competition which had made them famous and capitalised on it with a series of world tours, skating in ice spectaculars which rolled into one city after another like the latest Andrew Lloyd Webber. It was an existence which at the time was totally incompatible with the Olympic ethos, even in its by then highly commercialised form, and Torvill and Dean led it not for one moment thinking that gold medals might one day be up for grabs again.

All that changed last year when the ever-expedient International Olympic Committee changed the rules to let the professionals back in. Millionaire athletes - from Carl Lewis to Steffi Graf - are nothing new, of course. But there remains something troubling about the way professionals who were to a large degree made by the Games can now drop back into the Olympic arena almost as if it were a refuelling stop before rejoining the professional circuit.

For that is where Torvill and Dean are free to return to once the season is over, their pulling power heightened - they hope - by another gold medal, and with a new routine, forged in 'amateur' competition, to help boost ticket sales.

This was not the only reason why T & D wanted another go at the Olympics. It is a challenge they say they could not resist, and whatever the outcome of the competition tomorrow they have already shown their commitment to the best, which is no more than can be expected of any sportsman or woman.

British ice skating will benefit from the higher profile T & D have brought it, in increased sponsorship and television revenue. And if they finish in the top three at this year's world championship, extra places will go to domestic skaters at next year's event. Many interests depend on their success.

That is not the point, however. Either there should be no distinction between amateurs and professionals at the Olympics - as in athletics - or the principle should mean something, as in T & D's case. The ideal of the Games is already badly enough tarnished without the IOC offering opportunities for what can be all too easily seen as marriages of convenience.