Fire of an ice queen

profile Simon O'Hagan assesses a French skater who will be a central figure in Birmingham this week
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The Independent Online
THERE ARE parents of sporting champions who are content to entrust their offspring to others while they just watch proudly from the sidelines. There are other parents who can't let go. And then there are parents like Suzanna Bonaly.

In Birmingham this week Mrs Bonaly's daughter Surya will be attempting to win her first world figure skating title. If she does, it will be a triumph for one of the most remarkable partnerships of its kind in sport.

Surya Bonaly is the 21-year-old Frenchwoman who has won the past five European titles. But she is most famous for a title she did not win. At last year's world championships, in Chiba, Japan, Bonaly was so sure she was the best skater that when the judges marked her into second place, behind the local favourite Yuka Sato, she scandalised the authorities by initially refusing to take the podium, and then, having been persuaded of her duty, ripping the silver medal from her neck no sooner than it had been presented.

It was an unprecedented display of petulance. But to dismiss it merely as childishness, the product of a spoilt upbringing and an over-developed sense of justice, is to ignore the unorthodoxy of Bonaly's background and the singular way in which, through her mother, she has been turned into a star for whom the French feel a mixture of admiration and fascination.

Bonaly was adopted, and the environment she grew up in meant she was always likely to stand apart from the crowd. Suzanna Bonaly and her husband Georges were regulars on the hippy trail to Kathmandu in the early Seventies and hoped to adopt an Indian child. They registered as prospective adoptive parents in their home town of Nice and were offered a 10-month-old girl originally from La Runion, the French dpartement in the Indian Ocean. The infant could already walk, a sign of her future athleticism. For Suzanna, a PE teacher, the search was over.

Convention played little part in the lives of Bonaly's parents. Ecologists who also followed the teachings of Zen, they built their own house out of a ruin in the countryside inland from Nice, making it home to a variety of animals, and instilling in Surya a sense of differentness which in some ways has not made life any easier for her but which she says remains a source of pride. At the very least, Bonaly is a vindication of the fact that vegetarian sportspeople need not be at a disadvantage.

Bonaly, also an outstanding trampolinist, was first noticed by the French skating federation when she was eight. Didier Gailhaguet, now the director of the French team, was conducting a seminar in Nice and saw a young girl "trying to do jumps she had no idea how to do". But he could see she had raw talent and an aptitude for hard work. "I always like people who work hard," he says. "She improved so much in a month that I told Surya's mother that if she was serious about her daughter becoming a skater she should bring her to Paris where we could oversee her coaching."

This Suzanna and Surya did, initially living in a van parked outside the rink at Champigny in the east of the city, and reckoning on only staying there a year. But they never went back, and for 10 years Gailhaguet was Surya's coach while her academic schooling was in the hands of her mother. Success was only a matter of time.

Birmingham has a special place in Bonaly's heart. As a 15-year-old, it was there, in 1989, that she made her first appearance in the European Championship, finishing eighth. In 1990, in St Petersburg, she was fifth. Since then, she has won the European title every year, most recently in Dortmund a month ago.

It is on the world stage that her fortunes have wavered and she has courted controversy. The 1992 Olympic Games in Albertville were overshadowed by the collapse of her relationship with Gailhaguet, perhaps the defining moment in Bonaly's career.

Bonaly says she got rid of Gailhaguet because he could not offer her the artistic guidance she felt she needed. Gailhaguet says the split happened because he was finding Mrs Bonaly increasingly hard to work with, the breaking point coming when Bonaly, supported by her mother, disobeyed her coach's orders by attempting, and failing, to do a quadruple jump, a prodigiously difficult manoeuvre way beyond the scope of most skaters' ambitions.

"The mother was getting too much in the way," Gailhaguet says. "She was a very difficult person to handle, always having disagreements with judges. When her daughter did not win it was always someone else's fault." As in Japan last year, when even those who felt Bonaly had been hard done by could not accept that her reaction was justified.

Bonaly apologised immediately afterwards, but a year on the extent of her contrition seems limited. "I would never try to take away someone else's medal," she says. "But when I have skated well enough to win, I know it in myself. I would rather skate well and finish second or third than skate badly and win." But how can someone skate badly and win? "I have seen other skaters do it lots of times."

The question of Bonaly's colour plays its part in all this. Black people are rarer in skating than in many other sports, and Odile Guedj, the vice- president of the French skating federation, thinks Bonaly sometimes feels she is a victim of prejudice when marks go against her. Bonaly explains her position by saying that, as a black sportswoman, she feels a particular pressure to be the best, "and then nobody can say anything against you".

Whether Mrs Bonaly's constant presence eases or increases this pressure is another matter. "She is very strong, and I am very strong," Bonaly says. "And sometimes we clash. But then it is over." To outsiders, the relationship can look unhealthy. "When Surya is on her own, she is quite natural and easy to talk to," one Frenchman close to the family says. "But if her mother is around, it is as if she reverts to being a little girl." The result is that Bonaly leads a largely cocooned existence, with little contact even with other French skaters.

She is not entirely a one-off, having benefited from the general rise of French skating in recent years which has also seen the emergence of the brilliant Philippe Candeloro, a contender for the men's title in Birmingham. Bonaly and Candeloro are the main reasons why the French television station TF1 has just signed a five-year deal with the French federation worth 75 million francs (about £10m).

It is true that while Bonaly has always been an immensely powerful skater, her 5ft 2in frame capable of dynamic leaps, her marks for artistic impression have generally lagged behind those for technical merit. Since the departure of Gailhaguet, she and her mother, now in effect her coach, have sought instruction in both America and Russia in the hope of adding refinement and feeling to her routines.

In 1993, Bonaly spent two weeks with Tamara Moskvina, the revered St Petersburg coach who has since set up a school in Stevenage, Hertfordshire. It was just before Skate America, one of the sport's biggest events, and Bonaly wanted her routines completely reworked. "I didn't think it was possible to do this in so short a time," Moskvina says. "But she was very strong-willed, a real fighter. We changed the programmes, and she did very well."

Naturally, Mrs Bonaly was with Surya during this period, and Moskvina offers a slightly different view of her. "We Russian coaches don't usually like interference from parents," she says. "We find we can achieve much more on our own. But Mrs Bonaly was very helpful."

Bonaly's latest choreographer is another Russian, Natasha Dabbadie, who was last week laid up with a back injury at her home in Paris. But the routine, to a gypsy music accompaniment, that Dabbadie devised for Dortmund will be repeated in Birmingham, leaving Bonaly to fine-tune things with her mother at her training base at Pralognan in the French Alps. Dabbadie's involvement has added emotional depth to Bonaly's skating. "Nobody says she's not gracious any more," she points out.

Will the improvements to Bonaly be enough to win her the world title? Much depends on whether she can pull off her two triple combinations without error. Most of her rivals from recent years, including Sato, have turned professional, which means there is only one other realistic challenger, the Chinese Lu Chen, who won a bronze medal in last year's Olympics.

"Surya doesn't skate against other people," Odile Guedj says. "She only ever skates against herself." Private battles are always the most interesting.