Ice Skating: Torvill and Dean unravel the conundrum: Two Britons who once ruled the world of amateur ice dance are returning from the professional ranks. Paul Hayward reports

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THE MEMORY is wondrous yet strangely appalling. Nine sixes flashing across British television screens as the country enjoys a moment of unquestionable superiority with Torvill and Dean at the 1984 Winter Olympics. Pity that the venue struck such a discordant note yesterday as the two announced their comeback. Poor Sarajevo, not so sugar-coated and magical now . . .

Torvill and Dean are back on the Olympic trail. He is 34, she, 35. Sarajevo may not have fared so well since perfection was reached that night in old Yugoslavia, but the couple themselves looked unscathed by history as they spoke yesterday of finding 'a new lease of life' in returning to competitive skating. The message to the nation was clear: prepare to like ice dance again because Torvill and Dean have come 'full circle', as the ageless Christopher Dean said during a press conference at the Royal Albert Hall.

And how we need them back, you might say. In this era of national sporting mediocrity (so the theory goes), Britain is on to a sure-fire winner at the 1994 Games in Lillehammer, Norway. Surely we can put the bets on now. Settle back into the sofa and prepare for Ravel's Bolero, part two, all the time pretending to be interested in the wider aesthetic questions of dancing on ice, or - at the very least - not falling over so often when we visit the local rink.

It may not be so ridiculous. It may not be the kind of self-delusion that attends boxing comebacks, because according to Betty Callaway, who coached them to those worldwide successes, Torvill and Dean are actually better now than when those nine sixes for artistic impression flashed up, followed by the sporting conundrum: how do you improve on perfection?

'They've got that extra maturity and polish,' Callaway said. 'I saw them go through a new number the other day, and believe you me, a 20- year-old would have difficulty keeping up. Their skating is so fast and strong.'

Christopher Dean and Jayne Torvill will compete four times within the next 12 months before the Holiday-On-Ice world reclaims them. The British championships in November, the European championships in January, the Winter Olympics in February and the world championships in Tokyo 12 months from now. Why? Because the rules have been bent, like prison bars, to allow professional skaters back into amateur competition, and because Torvill and Dean are, you suspect, bored with dressing up as figures from Greek tragedy in multi-million pound 'spectaculars'.

The great achievement in Sarajevo can be instantly recalled. It was Valentine's Day. Even the normally sober Longman's Chronicle of the 20th Century remembers it as 'a sizzling, erotic performance'. Doubtless whoever recorded it that way was one of the people who hummed the Bolero infuriatingly after the event. It was the year of the Los Angeles Olympics, the Zola Budd controversy and Viv Richards's 189 in a one-day match against England. And yet 1984 was still the year of Torvill and Dean, champions in a faraway country of which Britain knew little and a sport it cared about even less.

Dean, recalling the Cold War days in which he first flourished, says he fears the Russians. 'No,' says Torvill, 'we would never be that complacent,' when asked whether she expected to win in Norway next year. 'There are a lot of good skaters out there.' But see how the expectations build as Torvill and Dean's sequined figures spin through the training routines, doing things somewhere along the border between art and theatre and sport.

Torvill says the comeback was Dean's idea. 'I thought he was drunk or something,' she said yesterday. 'I was very quiet for a while, then we started talking about it a lot.' For 10 months, as it happens, and at the end of these protracted deliberations Dean felt able to talk of feeling 'revitalised'. 'I'll race any of you down the street, put it that way,' Torvill said when she was asked if she was not too . . . well . . . old, to be contemplating such a move. Shame on anybody who suggests that a brief return to the amateur sphere will make their professional shows even more popular and profitable.

The form book says they can do it. Between 1981 and 1984 Torvill and Dean captured every title they contested. Four times they won the world championships and three times the European event (injury prevented them making it four). So besotted were the Establishment with the couple's gliding artistry that they were awarded MBE's as early as 1981, three years before the Sarajevo Games gave them a permanent place in the national consciousness.

Any adverse comments about the ease with which Torvill and Dean have been readmitted to the amateur realm are swept aside. 'If they want the best in the world to be performing then they have to open it up to people who've been competing professionally,' Dean said, not unreasonably (Katarina Witt, the German skater, has been embraced with similar warmth). 'No, we'll be part of the team,' Torvill said when asked whether they would be staying at luxury Norwegian hotels outside the Olympic village, in the manner of certain basketball and tennis players in Barcelona last year.

They are saying all the right things, making all the right moves. 'We're exhibitionists,' Dean said. 'It's part of us.' Sixes all round for honesty.

(Photograph omitted)