Ice Skating: Witt warms to task of reviving a cold world: A skating sensation prepares for an Olympic mission by displaying her art on ice at Wembley. Mike Rowbottom reports

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KATARINA WITT'S entrance to the Holiday On Ice show at Wembley is preceded by a number involving two teddy bears, a cuddly wolf and a dog whose eyes squirt water at the squirming and giggling front row - as the music makes clear, he's nothing but a hound dog, crying all the time. Afterwards, sequinned and smiling, male and female skaters arrive inside giant silver wheels.

Within such a context, the task of diverting a jollied family audience with a short sequence of serious skating is not an easy one. But within the space of four minutes, something about the young woman's movement has created a hush impinged on only by the elegaic piano music of the accompaniment, the rasp and bite of her skate-blades on the ice, and an occasional sigh of appreciation from the surrounding dark.

Even here, with a self-contained, self-choreographed number which was slotted into the adaptable Holiday On Ice formula this year after a deal settled in January, the essence of Witt's success was discernible. Performance. Appeal.

At 27 she appears thinner and more composed than the flashing-eyed creature who had her way with skating audiences and judges until her retirement from international competition in 1988, the superb young minx who in 1984, after the first of her two Olympic victories, received 35,000 love letters.

Since the upheaval in eastern Europe three years ago, however, this child of Chemnitz in eastern Germany - or Karl Marx Stadt, as it was known in the Communist years during which she emerged to become a double Olympic and four-times world champion figure skater - has had plenty of experience to counterbalance such universal affection. In the aftermath of the Berlin Wall coming down, she was caught - along with other athletes such as the sprinter Katrin Krabbe - in a domestic backlash against those who had thrived under Erich Honecker's regime. And her decision to seek reinstatement as an amateur in order to compete at next February's Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, something which was confirmed last week, has divided opinion in her own country as it struggles in its troubled process of unification.

'A lot of people are supportive,' she says. 'But others say, 'why the hell is she bothering to do it all again?' What I have achieved, no one can take away from me. But this is the one chance I have now and I don't want to be sitting there next February thinking I never tried. So I thought, what the heck.'

As she talks, it becomes clear that the vivacity of her performance on the ice is something that extends to her conversation, which she conducts fluently in an accent more American than German - a legacy of the last three years, in which she has created and performed in three successful shows in the United States. 'I had a lot of problems back home three years ago, although things have improved a lot in the last year. Yes, athletes in East Germany had a lot of support, a lot of money put in. But we worked our butts off. The training I had then enabled me to do everything I have. Should I always excuse myself for the rest of my life?' Her eyes flash as if they were on ice.

The idea that competing well for Germany in Lillehammer might help to heal the wounds that have opened in recent years is one she steers carefully around. 'I think of myself as a cosmopolitan, because I spend so much time travelling now. Perhaps I will represent Germany in a different way; more likely I will represent sport and an overall idea about the Olympic movement, about people being peaceful and coming together.'

When it comes to assessing her own chances after her long break from competitive pressure, she is coolly realistic. 'Some of the girls who are around now - look at them, 15, 16, 17 - they can do five different triples. I was probably only able to do three. But skating is a combination of sport and artistry. I'm not going to try and do five different triples - that would be ridiculous. And saying I'm going to win the gold medal would be ridiculous. But . . .' She pauses, stretching out her long legs and plonking her trainers on to the table in front of her. 'You have favourite actresses, and you just like to see them. Jimmy Connors is not first-ranked in tennis, but people like to see his emotions on the court. He gives charisma to the game. I know there is room for only one winner, but why should the others be losers then? The whole world is so big, there is room for everyone who is good to give what good they have.'

The world suddenly became an awesomely big place for Witt following the breakdown of the old East German system. Unlike the bulk of her fellow citizens, she had the wealth and independence to embrace freedom. But freedom is worrying.

'Growing up in one system and learning about another was hard for me at times,' she said. 'I had the opportunity to develop, and I feel sad for a lot of the kids in my old country now because there is nothing there to support them in doing the same thing.

'All of a sudden you can make decisions for yourself. You are on your own. But you have got to get used to your freedom. Friends of mine said they wondered how I took to these changes without having a nervous breakdown. I just concentrated on my work in the United States.'

Her new life has thrown up innumerable new interests and opportunities. Lying in the corner of her room are a pair of roller-skates with the logo Katarina Gold - her own promoted brand in the United States. She has made a film in Spain - Carmen on Ice. She models - her previous two days off from the Wembley show were spent fulfilling engagements in France and Germany. And last year - 'only last year]' - she discovered the music of Cole Porter in the United States. 'My friends were playing this music and I kept saying: 'Who is it? Does everyone know this?' I was introducing myself to a whole American culture.'

That culture included Madonna, to whom Witt professes an affinity which you would expect there to be between two young women made independent and wealthy through their own talent. 'I admire Madonna because she always finds something new in herself,' Witt says. 'Although the book last year (Sex) was just too much for me. Maybe it was done with a twinkle in the eye, though. I think you should still keep some secrecy about sex. That is what makes it interesting as well.

'Being independent and not reliant on a guy, sometimes you can go out and meet a guy and go for it. You are strong enough to make a decision. I think it's scary for a lot of guys as well, though. But I'm one of the women who are fighting for women being independent without losing femininity in doing

it. I think it can be done with charm.

'Skating is a tough business. You have to know what is going on, who's pulling the strings. But you try not to lose your softness as well.'

For all the callousing experience of the last three years, that is something she has not done - as Lillehammer and the world will witness next year. But nor has she lost her toughness. You ask her tentatively if, in retrospect, she would change anything in her career, and she is a tiger. 'Nothing. Nothing. I do not regret one second of my life.'

Holiday On Ice at Wembley Arena runs until 28 February.

(Photograph omitted)