THE WINTER OLYMPICS

STARS IN THE SPOTLIGHT

JANE O’HARA March 7 1988
THE WINTER OLYMPICS

STARS IN THE SPOTLIGHT

JANE O’HARA March 7 1988

STARS IN THE SPOTLIGHT

THE WINTER OLYMPICS

From the beginning, it was supposed to be a two-star event. East German Katarina Witt and American Debi Thomas would fight it

out for the Olympic gold medal: two Carmens, two contenders. But suddenly, near the end of the night, the script was torn up and Canada found itself with a freshly minted heroine. Elizabeth Manley, 22, of Ottawa, skated onto the ice dressed in shocking pink—and that was just the start of the electricity. Turning in the performance of her career, Manley skated off with the silver medal after winning the long program, worth 50 per cent of the final mark. She finished a barely perceptible four-tenths of a point behind Witt, who skated flawlessly to win her second Olympic gold. But, clearly, Thomas crumbled under the Olympic strain, settling for the bronze. Said an elated Manley, who had started the evening in third place: “I never really felt the pressure. It’s

been the Debi and Katarina story here.”

During her triumphant performance, Manley was buoyed by the cheers of a highly partisan crowd. “It sounded like the world was caving in,” said the skater. “There was so much love in the crowd I could have stayed out there all night.” In fact, the crowd was so loud that at times Manley could barely hear her own music. But the pert and perky five-foot, 105-lb. skater triple-jumped her way through an energetic program. Known for her jumping skills, the three-time Canadian champion has often been plagued by nerves in her six-year international career. But during her daunting four-minute program, Manley, who was recovering from the flu, looked as composed and confident as she had all week.

In the year leading up to the Olympics, Manley had increased her training to eight hours a day from two, under the eye of her coach, Peter Dunfield. She lost seven pounds, mostly from around her hips, and gained some newfound confi-

dence after consulting with sports psychologist Peter Jensen of Toronto. “I believed I could be on the podium,” said Manley. “This was a dream.” In fact, Manley had the dream two weeks ago. While training in Ontario in order to avoid the overheated Olympic atmosphere, she dreamt that her mother, Joan, ran down the Saddledome steps to congratulate her. It was a good omen for the highly superstitious skater, who travels to every competition with one of her 30 teddy bears. On Saturday morning, just hours before her triumph, Manley received yet another handmade bear from her doting mother, the emotional bedrock in her life. Manley thanked her, then headed to the dressing room to change as her mother yelled after her, “I love you.” Judges: The women’s competition boiled down to the dramatic long program last Saturday night, but the pot started bubbling well before that. After Thursday night’s short performance, in which Witt placed first, Thomas second and

Manley third, Thomas and her coach, Alex McGowan, complained bitterly that the judges had favored Witt’s European elegance to Thomas’s Yankee pizzazz. Said McGowan, who held his nose when Thomas’s marks came up on the scoreboard: “I’m concerned that, no matter what Debi does, the die has been cast.”

In the short performance, Witt appeared cautious and nervous. Standing at the boards before the performance, she held hands with her coach, Jutta Müller. Looking like a member of the Rockette’s chorus line in an outfit of rhinestones and blue plumes, Witt jumped, spun and tapdanced to a medley of Broadway tunes. She charmed, but failed to enchant, the 19,000 spectators in the Saddledome. But the judges rewarded her clean performance with high marks.

Minutes later when Thomas stepped on the ice in a black, sequin-studded body stocking, the crowd roared. As she started her program, Witt, skate laces untied, stood at rink-side and watched icily. Skating to the percussive, funky beat of Something in My House, Thomas jived her way into the hearts of the crowd, flawlessly completing the seven required elements. At the end, she received a standing ovation and mediocre marks from the judges. Thomas was clearly disappointed when

she appeared at a news conference after the event. When a reporter asked whether she thought Witt had tried to upset her by watching her skate, Thomas replied: “I don’t think I would have stood there. She was right beside my coach.”

Battle: Witt, 22, a three-time world champion and gold medallist at the 1984 Olympics in Sarajevo, entered the Games with her heady credentials intact. The 20-yearold Thomas, who defeated Witt at the world championships in 1986, was the underdog. But because both women chose to skate their long programs to Georges Bizet’s Carmen, there was an opportunity for direct comparison. “The battle between them has been going on for years,” said Peggy Fleming, the 1968 U.S. Olympic gold medallist in figure skating. “ The comparisons became very stark.” The coincidence of the Carmens was a saga'in itself. Witt decided after the 1987 world championships to skate to the opera, which caused an uproar in Paris when it was first performed in 1875 because it featured women in earthy and seductive roles. With her characteristic attention to detail, Witt became a full-blown Carmenologist, immersing herself in the study of the famous heroine. Painstakingly, Witt worked on every gesture and jump with the East German choreographer Rudi Suchy, who has been with her since she was 12.

Sexuality: Thomas took a different tack. Using some influential intermediaries, Thomas asked ballet star Mikhail Baryshnikov for help with her choreography, and he agreed. “Debi was in awe of him,” said Thomas’s mother, Janice. “She has his posters all over her bedroomwall.” Baryshnikov gave Thomas some tips and then turned her over to his friend, George de la Peña, formerly a soloist with American Ballet Theatre. In Witt’s version, Carmen becomes a victim of her sexuality. For Thomas, Carmen remains defiant to the very end, losing neither her spirit nor her life. Said de la Peña: “Carmen does not die. She is murdered.” Last Wednesday de la Peña arrived in Calgary to fine-tune his protégée’s performance. But his presence irritated McGowan, Thomas’s coach since 1978. McGowan, who has a combative

relationship with Thomas herself, became testy over de la Peña’s involvement. Watching Thomas practise last week, de la Peña said, “I may have to use hand signals to talk to her.”

There was also mounting tension between the two women. According to insiders, the demure Witt does not like the flamboyant Thomas. When told that Thomas was studying German in order to speak to Witt in her native tongue, Witt replied, “Doesn’t she know I speak English?” Meanwhile, Thomas, who once described herself as invincible, took a shot at Witt last Friday. Asked to sum up her opponent in one word, she said: “How about silver? She sure as hell isn’t going to get the gold.” At times last week Thomas reflected the strain by displaying the volatility of a prima donna. She openly argued with her coach, made funny faces at her boyfriend, Brian Vanden Hogan, and sulked whenever she fell.

Beauty: There were no histrionics during Witt’s practice sessions. When she took to the ice, she became the ultimate skating machine—with her coach, Müller, firmly at the controls. Said Fleming: “Mrs. Müller is responsible for every detail of that performance.” The East German beauty has been turning heads since her arrival in Calgary. At the athletes’ Olympic Village, 40 messages awaited her, including one from the Canadian bobsleigh team inviting her to the village disco. Canadian figure skater Kurt Browning was also smitten by Witt. After skating his long program on Feb. 20, Browning sat in the stands to watch the remainder of the competition. In the seat next to him was Witt. Browning said simply, “God put me there.”

Not everybody was as smitten. Last week Witt was lambasted by Dunfield, who claimed that her suggestive outfits would affect the nine judges—seven of whom are men. “We’re here to skate in a dress and not a G-string,” he added. “It’s a circus. ” Thomas entered the debate, saying, “Her costumes belong in an X-rated movie, rather than a world-class skating competition.” It was not the first time that Dunfield has created a stir, hoping to raise Manley’s profile. After Thomas beat Manley at Skate Canada last November, Dunfield declared that Thomas skated at a lethargic pace of “10 miles per hour.” Last week, in silent rebuttal, Thomas wore a sweatshirt with a 10 m.p.h. speed limit sign emblazoned on the front. On the back, the script read: “Trying for 60 m.p.h.”

But when it came to the final test, Manley’s speed and spunk were clearly superior. For Manley, capturing the silver medal, Canada’s second of the Games, was a dream come true. For Canadians, it was an Olympian moment to treasure for years to come.

—JANE O’HARA in Calgary

JANE O’HARA