Sopranos' take to ice

Posted: Friday, August 02, 2002

Just what figure skating needed: another cheap thrill.

Already a refuge for con artists and cronyism, now it has become a front for the mob. Any hope of getting the sport kicked of the next Winter Olympics just vanished. Besides having friends now in high and low places, imagine the appeal of ''The Sopranos'' on ice.

A few people already have.

Former national pairs skating champion Tai Babilonia said she would have trouble telling little kids to take up her sport.

That was six weeks ago.

Thursday morning, Babilonia picked up her newspaper in Los Angeles and read about the latest intrigue. As befits a sport with both an international clientele and a flair for the dramatic, the story detailed the arrest of a Russian mobster living in an Italian resort who was charged by U.S. prosecutors in Manhattan with fixing a pair of figure skating events at the Salt Lake City Olympics. (Get this: The mobster undertook the whole thing so he could get a permanent visa to live in France. France!)

And this is what Babilonia, who said she ''tries to look on the good side of everything and everyone,'' said about her sport: ''They need to spray '409' on the whole thing.''

Randy Gardner, her former skating partner, was thinking the same thing.

''There have been tight squeezes and close calls before, but this is kind of like our Enron,'' he said.

But John Nicks, the British-born, plain-speaking skating coach who has just as much at stake in the sport as his former pupils, is anything but dismayed.

He's been in the racket long enough to know the latest turn of events might be bad for reputations, but it couldn't be much better for business.

''It's something I wouldn't have put together my whole life,'' he said, chuckling. ''I can think of no more unlikely combination than ice dancing and the FBI.''

Yet there they were, those very words laid out side by side in the papers. Like the compulsory figures the skaters once were required to trace, the alleged conspiracy got more intricate the longer it went on.

The problem was the higher-ups at the International Skating Union lost interest too soon. After debunking, then disciplining, French judge Marie-Reine Le Gougne and her federation boss, Didier Gailhauget, they dashed back to their cocktail parties before their martinis turned warm. What they conveniently forgot was the other side to what U.S. prosecutors termed a classic quid pro quo -- the Russian half of the equation.

''Just more intrigue,'' Nicks said, ''which is one of the things this sport thrives on.

''It's always been a really strange activity, sort of an elegant soap opera. I'm sure that's why the American public loves it so. Probably 1 in 1,000 people here goes skating, but their interest is almost unchecked.

''So it all depends on how you define harm. Personally, I think interest in figure skating will be more intense and widespread than ever, just as we experienced after the nasty Harding-Kerrigan business.''

Ah, Tonya.

You remember her.

She whacked skating's credibility in the knee and gave it a ratings boost the ongoing soap opera has never quite recovered from. Now we come to find out that skaters aren't the only people occasionally trying to push the envelope.

Bad music, pouffy uniforms, constant whining and indecipherable scoring -- figure skating always seemed like anything but a real sport, anyway. Now, though, it at least has one thing in common with basketball, baseball and football.

But the scandal also moves figure skating farther out on the limb, away from gymnastics and diving and closer to pro wrestling. It's becoming a parody of itself.

It doesn't matter that it's the most popular Olympic sport. What happened at Salt Lake City proved the tail is wagging the dog. Awarding two gold medals to send the audience home happy scraped some credibility off not just figure skating, but rookie International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge as well.

Figure skating is plenty athletic -- no argument there -- but it has crossed a line no sport should ever cross.

A real sport needs a clock or a scoreboard that everybody can follow or, like boxing, at least a chance for one competitor to take the other out before the result falls into the judges' hands.

''Then go watch archery,'' Nicks said. ''You'll get a true, great result and maybe all of 300 people watching.''

Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org



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