Katarina Witt, the reigning Olympic women’s figure skating champion, curled her lower lip outward in an exaggerated pout. “Enough of politics,” the German beauty said in her lightly accented English. “Let’s talk about skating.” It was 8:30 p.m. on a Wednesday, and Witt was sitting at a table beneath the seats at the Cumberland County Civic Center in Portland, Me. Although she had already skated for more than three hours that day, Witt was preparing for a third practice session.
The hectic training was part of the final rehearsals for opening night of a skating show featuring herself, 1988 men’s gold medallist Brian Boitano and a cast of 13 other top skaters, including three Canadians. Despite her preference for skating over politics, Witt told Maclean ’s that the November, 1989, collapse of East German communism has dramatically changed her life. She added: “Freedom is so wonderful. I can grab my bags and jump on a plane whenever I want. You get used to it so fast that you can’t imagine life was different before.” Now, she is touring North America in a dazzling show entitled simply Katarina Witt & Brian Boitano—Skating II.
Freedom: With her newly acquired freedom, Witt says that she has only begun to pursue the commercial opportunities available to her as a result of her mesmerizing gold-medal performance at the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics. In October, she hired Jefferson Pilot Sports & Entertainment, a major syndication and marketing company based in Charlotte, N.C., to line up commercial endorsement opportunities. She also has formed a company called KW Arts and Entertainment, based in Frankfurt, and brought in two partners, German entertainment producers Elisabeth Wiegand and Diether Dehn, to help manage her business affairs. Jefferson Pilot’s executive director of programming, Michael Burg, said that he foresees a lucrative future for the skater. Declared Burg: “There are tremendous international opportunities out there for her. The endorsement package we’re working on has the potential to be one of the best in the world.”
Since the Calgary Olympics, Witt, 25, has occasionally appeared as a guest star in ice shows but has worked most closely with the 27-year-old Boitano, a native of Sunnyvale, Calif. They have collaborated on two television
specials and the skating show, which first toured the United States last spring. Despite their close working relationship, and playful flirting on and off the ice, Witt says that she and Boitano are not romantically involved. “We’re just friends,” says Witt. “I have no boyfriends at the moment. One day, I would like to have a serious relationship and start a family. Now, I am too busy to do anything but skate.” Although she skated to international acclaim
as a two-time Olympic and four-time world champion, Witt says that her celebrity status eventually caused problems at home, in East Germany, before it was unified with the West. Witt is a native of Karl-Marx-Stadt, an industrial town about 200 km south of Berlin in what is now eastern Germany. Her father, Manfred, is a departmental director at a plant and seed cooperative and her mother, Käthe, is a physical therapist. Witt began skating at the age of 5 because there was an ice rink near her kindergarten. She said that because she was a promising athlete, the educational and sporting authorities in her home town worked together to ensure that she received adequate training, along with her schooling. Within five years, she began training with Jutta Müller, a legendary East German skating coach whose charges earned a score of gold medals in international events. Said Witt: “The sports system in East Germany worked like the economy does here. The best person goes forward.”
Witt’s early competitive success in figure skating earned her special privileges, including
an apartment and a car, that usually required a 10-year wait under East Germany’s Communist regime. Unlike other East Germans who became world champions, particularly the swimmers and track stars, Witt was the queen of a glamor sport. She told Maclean’s that when she retired from amateur competition following the 1988 world championships in Budapest, she could have embarked on a potentially lucrative professional career.
But the East German authorities tried to persuade her to continue her general arts education at the postsecondary level. Witt said that they withheld travel visas, sometimes for weeks at a time, attempting to discourage her from pursuing professional opportunities. She added: “Everything was very strict. It was so complicated.
I had to beg.”
As a professional skater, she has worked most closely with Boitano, whom she first met at the 1983 world championships in Helsinki. Although they encountered each other annually at subsequent international competitions, they did not become close friends until after the 1988 Olympics and world
championships. In fact, Witt traces the origins of their friendship to a late-night conversation they had in 1988 during the 30-city Tour of World Figure Skating Champions, an annual show featuring the top amateurs and sponsored by Minneapolis-based promoter Tom Collins. Said Witt: “We were sitting on the floor of my hotel room, talking. The whole world thought we were the happiest people in the world. There were a thousand people who wanted to get behind us and be our managers. Everyone was a friend.” But, she added, “We were both lonely. We didn’t know what we wanted to do.”
Problems: Their first opportunity to collaborate professionally occurred during the fall of 1988, when ABC television agreed to create a one-hour special around Boitano. Titled Canvas of Ice, the program was broadcast across the United States and Canada that December. Witt said that she had to negotiate with the East German authorities for six months before receiving permission to appear in the special. Despite those problems, both Witt and Boitano
said that they were pleased with the results of their combined efforts. Said Boitano: “We loved it so much that we decided to do other projects together.”
Witt initiated their next venture, a skating movie based on the popular opera Carmen, which was written by the French composer Georges Bizet in 1873 and 1874. The opera, which is set in Seville, Spain, in 1820, involves a soldier named Don José who falls in love with a gypsy cigarette girl, Carmen. When she
spurns him for a matador, Escamillo, he fatally stabs her during a jealous rage. Boitano and Witt played the two leading roles, while Canadian skater Brian Orser played Escamillo. Toronto-based choreographer Sandra Bezie developed the skating scenes. The film, entitled Carmen on Ice, was shown in the United States in the spring of 1990 by the American pay television network Home Box Office, and, in September of that year, all three skaters won Emmy awards for outstanding individual achievement in classical music-dance program-
ming. Carmen on Ice will be shown on the CBC television network on Jan. 27.
Most of the movie was shot in Seville, but only after prolonged negotiations between Witt and East German authorities. “They kept asking me why I wanted to do this and kept saying I should be in school,” she recalled. She said that she first applied for an exit visa in January, 1989, and obtained one only after agreeing to shoot several scenes in East Germany. Because of the government’s opposition, the
shooting of Carmen on Ice was delayed until November, 1989. As a result, Witt watched with a mixture of uncertainty and trepidation from Spain as a popular uprising toppled the Communist regime in her homeland.
Despite the political changes that swept her country, Witt said, for several months she still encountered difficulties pursuing her career in the West. The first version of Katarina Witt & Brian Boitano—Skating was delayed until last spring, beyond the season for skating shows, because she had problems obtaining an
exit visa. Said producer Stanley Feig: “We were going to do the first show earlier, but we had to go through the East German bureaucracy, which was very difficult.”
Although Witt’s triumphant amateur career ended almost three years ago, her new American managers say that they are confident that the skater still has the beauty, talent and charm to become an international star as a professional. Burg said that his company is planning to use Witt as the anchor for what it calls a “triple
crown of skating,” which will consist of three competitive events for professionals with prize money more than double the current best purse of $45,000 available in the NutraSweet World Professional Figure Skating Championships. Burg said that the competitions will likely be held in Canada, the United States, Europe and Japan during the winter of 1991-1992. He added that Jefferson Pilot is now trying to select appropriate products for Witt to endorse.
Rigors: As her professional horizons begin to expand, Witt acknowledges that her personal life has changed dramatically as well. She said that she travels almost constantly to meet business commitments or make appearances. She maintains an apartment in eastern Berlin, but she says that it is sparsely furnished because she rarely spends any time there. She has traded her Russian-built Lada car for a German-made Golf, with personalized licence plates—and the rigors of amateur competition for the frequently more demanding life of a professional skater.
Witt said that she used to train four to seven hours a day so that she could perform two-minute and six-minute programs at the world championships. Now, as a professional, she said that her training schedule can vary depending on whether she is travelling or whether there is ice available. She appears for
an average of 25 minutes during a two-hour show and performs several numbers of varying lengths, some of them solo and some with partners. Witt says that she prefers the variety available to her as a professional and adds that, for now, her only objective is to continue skating. Said Witt: “At the moment, I’m so busy skating that I can’t see myself doing something different.” For skating fans around the world, that should be welcome news.
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