ICE SKATING Rink revolution puts amateurs in step

ICE SKATING

MARK BURTON

reports from Birmingham

It seems somehow appropriate that revolution is in the air when there is a world champion bearing a name that is synonymous with a radical change in the world of music.

Whatever his own status, Elvis Stojko, who has the opportunity to defend the men's title on home ice in Canada next year, could soon be taking on all-comers on a regular basis if the International Skating Union's preliminary plans to expand professionals into direct competition with amateurs come to fruition.

The ISU's plan envisages expanding the number of open events from two to eight for the 1995-96 season, supporting a new grand prix series, and the introduction of prize-money for all ISU championships in both figure and speed skating.

If successful, this shake-up for the sport could have a radical impact on its future. In terms of figure skating, the changes are calculated to staunch the flow of talent into the professional ranks, where the attraction is not only the ability to earn money from competition, but also the opportunity for skaters to become financially secure through touring with a show.

The continual loss of the known names from the ISU- ratified events threatens to strain the credibility of amateur championships, which are the life- blood of the sport, but could soon be perceived as nothing more than a route to the potential prosperity beyond.

The ISU aims to capitalise on the present popularity of the sport; the full-house signs went up at the National Exhibition Centre for the medal sessions last week, and already available seats in Edmonton next year - where the capacity of 16,000 is more than double that of the Birmingham venue - are scarce.

Titles, of course, still go to skaters who beat their rivals, but absenteeism is becoming more evident. Chen Lu performed superbly to secure the women's crown on Saturday. The Chinese woman saw off the power-based challenge from France's Surya Bonaly, who jumped her way to another silver medal after an indifferent short programme, and the threat from the free spirit, Nicole Bobek.

The American skated well enough to deflect attention - at least for the moment - away from her private life and to take the bronze, despite twice polishing the ice with her backside during her free programme. But it was impossible not to wonder what would have happened had the 1994 world champion, Yuka Sato of Japan, and the Olympic gold medallist, Oksana Baiul of Ukraine, not rendered themselves ineligible.

The main considerations for the ISU before they present their plans for approval at their meeting in Athens in May will be the framing of technical requirements. Joining the professional ranks and performing on the show circuit can put skaters out of step with competitive technique, as Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean discovered to their cost last season.

Whether the ISU can deter skaters from turning professional on winning a major title remains to be seen. But considering that a skater of Steven Cousins' quality could manage only eighth place among the men, and that the agile American, Michelle Kwan, finished fourth among the women even though, like Britain's admirable Jenna Arrowsmith, she is only 14 years old, there will be plenty worth watching in the amateur arena for some time.

MEDAL WINNERS Men: 1 E Stojko (Can); 2 T Eldredge (US); 3 P Candeloro (Fr).

Women: 1 Chen Lu (Ch); 2 S Bonaly (Fr); 3 N Bobek (US).

Pairs: 1 R Kovarikova and R Novotny (Cz Rep); 2 E Shishkova and V Naumov (Rus); 3 J Meno and T Sand (US).

Ice Dance: 1 O Grischuk and E Platov (Rus); 2 S Rahkamo and P Kokko (Fin); 3 S Moniotte and P Lavanchy (Fr).

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