Ice Skating: Witt back in mood for gold: Queen of skating defies new generation to head for a winter wonderland

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IT WAS always a smile to melt men's hearts; yesterday it could have unfrozen an icecap. Five years after she last saw her destiny in a row of judges' scorecards, Katarina Witt took a crucial step towards a third Olympic gold medal by finishing second in the German figure skating championships. It was her first competitive appearance since 1988, when she turned professional and appeared to have opted for the soft life of ice galas and gossip columns.

A beneficiary of the rule change that allowed Torvill and Dean back into competition, the former pin-up girl of the old East German regime ensured a place for herself in the unified nation's team at the European championships in Copenhagen next month. From there, the top two Germans will go on to the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer in February.

The fear was that, at 28, Witt would have been left behind by a new generation of ice athletes. Would her return become the sort of embarrassing spectacle inflicted on their old fans by Bjorn Borg or Mark Spitz? Yesterday's events in Herne, a small town in the Ruhr, may not have provided the definitive answer, but they showed that a year's hard work, including fitness training sessions supervised by Frank Dick, the British athletics coach, has not been in vain.

With her womanly contours and her knowing air, she may now be a matronly Tourischeva amid the shoal of Korbuts. But even those of us who don't know our lutz from our elbow could see from yesterday's four-minute free programme that she possesses qualities Tanja Szewczenko and Marina Kielmann, who finished first and third, will never know.

A 46-kilogramme schoolgirl like Szewczenko may be able to fill her routine with so many triple jumps - half a dozen, in fact - that she practically qualifies for air miles every time she competes, but Witt, skating in a lace frock the colour of dried blood to an orchestral version of 'Where Have All the Flowers Gone?', drives her blades straight through the calisthenics and the kitsch to get a purchase on the real artistry beneath the slushy surface.

Witt raised her personal quota of triple jumps to four, one more than she had been attempting in the last days of her original competitive career, but it was in attempting a second double axel only 20 seconds from the end that she made her sole mistake, spinning out of the jump with an adroit recovery.

Her routine, choreographed by Sandra Bezic, may have been short on innovation, leading the judges to mark her between 5.4 and 5.6 for technical merit, but it was certainly abundant in the sort of poetry that attracts a non-specialist audience. 'People told me they had the shivers when they watched my programme,' she said afterwards. 'That's what I wanted.' For artistic impression, she was awarded six 5.8s and three 5.9s. It seemed an understatement.

She had also come second, behind the pale 16-year-old Szewczenko, in Friday's technical programme. Skating to the music from Robin Hood (Kevin Costner rather than Mel Brooks, unsurprisingly), coolly elegant in a subfusc principal-boy costume of sludgy greens and browns, she dropped marks in the category of 'required elements' - the textbook triple jumps, toe loops and double axels - with an average of 5.5. For presentation, though, she solicited a 5.9 from one judge, and nothing below 5.7.

So why is she doing it? Why, after two Olympic golds, four world championships and six European championships, is she pushing her 28-year-old frame through the harsh and unrelenting disciplines needed to compete against teenagers whose weightless bodies fly into triple jumps like so many twirling sycamore seeds?

'She loves to skate,' said her coach, Jutta Muller, the brisk, flint-eyed 64-year-old who guided Witt through her years of triumph, 'and she wants to give something more to the sport. She's working very hard, and she's doing everything I tell her.' Witt herself talks a lot of non-specific New Age guff about 'reaching for your dream'.

Cynics, on the other hand, observe that she has lately announced plans to publish her autobiography, which would be given a significant boost by a triumphant return in Lillehammer. But no one should underestimate the ferocity of her competitive instinct, the quality that distinguishes the great from the very good.

'If I were her,' said Marina Kielmann, the graceful 25-year-old blonde who was defending a record of three consecutive German championships in Herne this weekend, 'if I had all those titles, all those medals, I'd grab them and run away from every ice rink in the world so that nobody could come and take them away from me.'

Witt's last competitions were Kielmann's first: the European championships in Prague, the Olympics in Calgary, and the world championships in Budapest, all in 1988 and all, of course, won by Witt. 'But she came to these championships as a normal skater,' Kielmann added, whistling to keep her spirits up. 'Just like the rest of us. I don't think about her. I have to concentrate on my own performance.'

To see how hard that is to achieve when Katarina Witt is about, you had only to turn up at the Gysenberghalle at breakfast time yesterday to watch the free practice session. As an informal display of the competitive urge, it took some beating.

Alone of the five, the black-clad Witt was on the ice for the full 40 minutes, not only running through her own free-skating routine but using the opportunity to stretch her legs to the music of the others. If she'd been planning to use the session to intimidate her rivals, she could hardly have done a better job. Sent out with a maternal pat on the rump by Muller, freed from the confines of a script and improvising with magical fluidity, she high-stepped behind Szewczenko, glided in the tracks of Lang, swooned alongside Kielmann and flickered luminously in the shadow of Hofstetter.

Been there, she was telling them, done that. And watch out, little madchen, because I believe I can do it all over again. Maybe she can, and maybe she can't. But to the rest of us, the message was just as clear: don't touch that dial.

(Photograph omitted)