Ice-skating: Lu Chen a leading figure

Bonaly and Bobek put in shade as Chinese heroine recaptures her form to rule the world
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The Independent Online
THE equivalent of the width of a blade was all that separated Lu Chen and Surya Bonaly yesterday in as tense and competitive a world figure skating championship as there has been. An enthralled audience at the National Exhibition Centre seemed to have a marginal preference for 18-year-old Chen, and in the end the judges came down on her side, making her the first Chinese woman to win the title.

For Bonaly, aged 21, it meant silver for the second year running, and her third in all. But whereas last year her indignation at not winning gold led her to discard the lesser medal as soon as it was presented to her, here she showed grace in yielding to a fractionally superior opponent. From lying fourth after the short programme, the title seemingly way beyond her reach, the Frenchwoman could only be admired for the sheer desire she showed in coming so close.

The woman with most to feel disappointed about was Nicole Bobek, the 17-year-old American who had arrived in Birmingham trailing clouds of controversy after a brush with the law back home. She exceeded all expectations by leading going into the free programme to give herself a wonderful chance of the title at her first attempt. Perhaps not surprisingly, her nerve failed her, and two falls saw her slip back to third. A medal of any kind was still a remarkable achievement.

The only other skater with a realistic hope of victory was the Russian Olga Markova, second overnight. But her long programme is her weakest element, and her prospects were not helped when out of the final group which comprised the six best-placed skaters, she was drawn to take the rink first. As soon as she put both hands on the ice to steady herself after her first jump, a triple lutz, it was clear the glory lay elsewhere.

Next up was Bobek, already displaying the poise of a champion. There were two ways of interpreting the wobble that accompanied her opening triple lutz/triple toe-loop combination which took her so close to the edge of the rink she had the television cameramen flinching. Either it was enough that she had completed, pretty much without error, a prodigiously difficult manoeuvre, or it betrayed a fundamental flaw. The latter turned out to be the case.

When disaster struck, it did so unexpectedly with a fall on a triple loop halfway through her routine. Then she fell again on a triple salchow, and although the judges marked her into the lead at that point, a reflection of the challenges she had set herself, the way her body slumped on the completion of her programme told its own story.

Lu Chen, third after the short programme, then took the ice knowing that if she could stay on her skates the title could well be hers. She was sweet, delicate, rarefied, but never winsome, her quiet precision drawing the audience into her performance, accompanied by music from The Last Emperor, until the cheers rolled around the stands. It was a remarkable turnaround in form after Chen, suffering from stomach trouble, had struggled during qualifying at the beginning of the week.

For Bonaly, five times the European champion, even perfection might not have been enough, but she was determined to give it her best shot. Summoning all her athleticism and as much artistry as she could muster, she ended an error-free routine with a look to the judges that implored them to give her the gold. She nearly had her wish. Three of the judges had Chen first, and three had Bonaly first. So the decision had to be based on the number of second places each skater had. In Chen's case it was three, in Bonaly's two.

With Bonaly's routine over, so too, in effect, was the contest. But that did not stop the last skater, Michelle Kwan, of the United States, from giving perhaps the most captivating performance of all, which with two of the nine judges placing her first overall secured her fourth place.

The good news from the point of view of next year's world championships in Edmonton, Canada, is that none of the leading contenders here will be turning professional before then. The prospect of Chen, Bonaly and Bobek crossing skates again is an enticing one.