Winter Olympics / Ice Skating: Britons at the mercy of bench

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The Independent Online
AN ALLY on the judges' bench is as necessary in ice dance as blades on your boots. Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean go to the Winter Olympics comforted by the knowledge that Mary Parry will be in Hamar as well.

The nine to judge the dance event, which starts next Friday with the two compulsories, will be picked from 10 officials sent to Norway by the countries strongest in this discipline. Until last weekend, Britain was not included, but the sudden withdrawal by Italy of their competitors, and hence their judge, left a vacancy.

With neither Uzbekistan nor Lithuania, countries top-heavy in skaters rather than officials, able to oblige, Britain were recruited. Since the comparatively pedestrian Torvill and Dean secured the European Championship by one judge's preference, the significance could be profound.

Russia, with three dance pairs on the medal trail at Hamar - two of whom, Maya Usova and Aleksandr Zhulin, and Oksana Grishchuk and Yevgeniy Platov, have genuine gold chances - will be in a similar state of expectancy. Denied a judge at Copenhagen, Russia's hopes were further sunk when the Ukrainian on the bench voted the crowd's favourites, the Finns Susanna Rahkamo and Petri Kokko, fourth instead of second, a position their performance merited. Had they not done so, Usova and Zhulin would be the European champions.

Meanwhile, the Torvill and Dean camp has let it be circulated that their 'Let's Face The Music And Dance' number has undergone a further facelift to try to counter the faster footwork and more varied tempo of the younger Russians.

Posing a bigger threat, however, could be the Finns, who might steal sufficient preferences to influence the result with their absorbing routine depicting the tragi-comic romance of the busker girl and spiv in Fellini's La Strada.

The decision by the International Skating Union to make the sport open and allow professionals, already millionaires, to exploit the Olympics stage and its captive two to three billion television audience has not just benefited Brtian's former Olympic champions.

Both Brian Boitano, men's Olympic champion of 1988, and Katarina Witt, who dates back to Sarajevo, will profit richly.

Confronting Boitano are the Canadians Elvis Stojko, the favourite, and the world champion Kurt Browning, plus, from the Ukraine, Viktor Petrenko, the Albertville winner. Absent are America's Todd Eldredge and the Ukrainian Vyacheslav Zagorodnyuk, both victims of professional reinstatements. Britain's Steven Cousins, who shows off most of the Olympic sports in his novel free programme, will do well to make the first dozen.

Witt, facing a mighty trio in Surya Bonaly (France), Oksana Bayul (Ukraine), the world champion, and Nancy Kerrigan (United States) must attempt the loop jump that eluded her in her prime but could be her salvation. Matching Kerrigan, whatever her state of mind after her recent traumas, for elegance will be Charlene von Saher, London-born though America-domiciled, who, like Cousins, will be eager to project figure skating, rather than dance, as the sport for athletic young Britons.

The first skating gold, that for the pairs on Tuesday, must go to the near-impregnable Muscovites, Ekaterina Gordeyeva and Sergei Grinkov, to add to that won at Calgary. For Britain, Jackie Soames and John Jenkins, will have the target of selection for the World Championships at Makuhari, Japan, next month. In the summer they trained in St Petersburg alongside the reigning Olympic champions, Natalya Mishkutienok and Artur Dmitryev - surely destined only for silver in Hamar.

British team: Steve Cousins, Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean, Jackie Soames and John Jenkins, Charlene von Saher.