Notable Triumphs, Wrong Notes

February 27, 1984

Early last week in Sarajevo, Valentine Piessev, a Soviet member of the International Skating Union's figure skating committee, lodged a bitter complaint with local Olympic officials: The pro-American crowds at the Zetra Ice Arena were just too demonstrative in their support of the U.S. figure skaters. Such shouting and stamping, waving of flags and unfurling of crude banners was distracting the other competitors, he said.

What was that again, Valentine? Repeat, please, and we'll try to read your lips because we just can't hear you in all this racket.

The XIV Winter Games are over now, and when the snow finally melts in downtown Sarajevo, the street cleaners will still be uncovering stolen hotel bed-sheets brightly painted with such things as STICK IT TO THEM, SCOTTY!

And that's exactly what Scott Hamilton did. The three-time world champion won a gold medal last Thursday with as much brio as he could muster under difficult circumstances. Then, on Saturday, Rosalynn Sumners skated beautifully and made off with the silver, while Katarina Witt of East Germany took the gold.

Earlier in the week, on Valentine's Day, Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean of Great Britain won the gold medal in ice dancing—as was expected—but Judy Blumberg and Michael Seibert, the No. 1 U.S. ice dancers, four-time national champs and world bronze medalists, were euchred out of an Olympic medal in a game of musical snooker. No wonder everybody was yelling.

To the crowds intensely watching his every move, Hamilton appeared to be as ebullient as ever. "Life's just wonderful," he kept saying. But in private he confided to a friend, "Don't print this until it's all over, but this is gonna be tough. It's like I can't win here. Oh, I can win the gold medal, but I can't really win." What had happened was this: Hamilton had come down with an ear infection that affected his balance. He had visited a team doctor. "He gave me some legal throat spray," Hamilton said. "When the doc shined his little light into my ears, I sang him Can You Read My Mind?, a song from Superman. Remember it?"

What was really on Hamilton's mind, of course, was winning with style, and in the compulsory figures he was ranked first by all nine judges, painstakingly putting in the bank a big lead that would later pull him through. In second place was Jean-Christophe Simond of France, but he was no real threat. The man to beat was 22-year-old Brian Orser, the Canadian national champion, who was lurking back in seventh place with two events to go.

And, sure enough, Orser won the two-minute short program—"Justly so," said Hamilton, who hadn't lost one of those since 1982. The Canadian picked up six judges to Hamilton's three (you should have heard the crowd yowl over that one), and edged into fifth going into the free skating program. Easy striking distance.

Orser skated a knockout program that included a triple Axel, which Hamilton doesn't do in competition. In fact, Orser made five triple jumps of one sort or another, earning a score top-heavy with 5.9s. A few roses thrown for Orser still lay on the ice when Hamilton came out. He casually picked them up and tossed them over the rail.

Hamilton started off strongly enough. As always, his camel spin was so correct, so flat, that you could have balanced a tray of wine glasses on the small of his back and not spilled a drop. But then weird things began to happen. It was almost as if Hamilton were doing a Hamilton impression. He doubled out of one triple jump and his axis on the other jumps—heretofore upright, never tilted—fell off to one side or another. "I felt like I had a 10-pound weight around each ankle," he said later. Then he bob-bled a triple flip and triple Salchow. His coach, Don Laws, was a picture of calm despite the far from Hamiltonian performance. "What happened," Laws said later, "was just that, with the ear infection, Scott felt strange in the air, and it was simply a case of his motor reflexes taking over in a crisis."

Hamilton finished with six 5.9s to Orser's 11, but while Orser had won the evening, Hamilton's bank account from the compulsories paid off in gold. The decidedly unthreatening Jozef Sabovtchik of Czechoslovakia won the bronze. Simond, incidentally, ended up in sixth place.

Hamilton made no I-was-sick excuses, preferring to play down the ear infection. "It wasn't my best, but I did it," he said. "That's the way this game is scored. By the way, is that a hockey crowd out there?" From its exuberance it seemed that way, especially when Hamilton grabbed a U.S. flag from a spectator and took a victory lap around the rink with Orser and Sabovtchik.

Then he was off to the drug-control room for his urine test. But he was blocked at the doorway by a Yugoslav security guard. "You got no credential," the guard said, in effect. Stunned, Hamilton pointed to the disc shining below his neck. "But I just won the gold medal," he said. "I promise you I'm a real competitor." The guard remained unmoved, so Hamilton was forced to dash back to the locker room to get his credential.

In the women's free skating program it was world champ Sumners against challenger Witt (pronounced vit), 18 and beautiful, the belle of Karl-Marx-Stadt. Witt had emerged from the preliminaries in the lead, followed by Sumners and the U.S.S.R.'s Kira Ivanova, assuredly no slouch. The gold medal could have gone to any of them.

Well, it could have until Witt up and skated to Embraceable You. She whirled high in three triple jumps and landed effortlessly, and she was both stirring and delightful in her other moves. Witt got 11 5.8s and five 5.9s (with but two modest sevens mixed in)—and the only way Sumners, next up, could have beaten her would have been to roll out everything in her repertoire. No more of that languid, ladylike stuff, right, Roz?

Almost right, at that. Sumners skated terrifically—at times one could see touches of Peggy Fleming in her graceful arabesque, hints of Sonja Henie in her serpentine sequence—and lost by only one-tenth of a point. But as smooth as she was, sadly there was no fire. In her last two jumps she opted for a double toe loop instead of a triple, and she singled out of what was to have been a double Axel. "I'll question myself about that all night," she said later. "I could have won if I had landed those jumps. But right now, I'm going to go home and eat some chocolate."

America's tiny Tiffany Chin glided up from 12th place, after the compulsories, to fourth, behind bronze medalist Ivanova. The redoubtable Elaine Zayak, once the world and U.S. champion, finished a dismal sixth in spite of skating a splendid program—and the judges seemed to be telling her that it's finally ice-show time.

And what of the Valentine's Day snookering? When last we left Blumberg and Seibert, they were on their way to an Olympic medal in Sarajevo—not the gold, for that had been booked by Torvill and Dean long before—but still a medal. Blumberg and Seibert had worked for it ever since finishing seventh in the 1980 Olympics. For the Sarajevo Games they had produced a new routine, satiny and lyrical and dazzling. It was a far cry from their previously bouncy, typically American number and appeared to be closely patterned after that of world champs Torvill and Dean, whose ice dancing is almost a kind of erotic ballet. Based on what happened last week, Blumberg and Seibert's switcheroo may have been a mistake.

Torvill and Dean swept grandly into Sarajevo aboard a sleeper direct from their training center in West Germany and were met at the station at 8:32 a.m. by a loyal band of British journalists. Loyal? The Manchester Guardian refers to T and D as THEIR GREATNESSES.

Meanwhile, Blumberg and Seibert arrived with the rest of the U.S. skaters and milled around town. One of Blumberg's first accomplishments was to set off the security checkpoint alarms at the Olympic Village because her inside parka pockets were stuffed with Mallomars from home. "Must have been the tinfoil wrappers or something," she said.

Naturally, Torvill and Dean led the 19-couple field from the moment they glided onto the ice, nailing down a mere nine out of nine judges en route to the finals and scoring three perfect 6.0s in the Westminster waltz section of the compulsories. Nobody had ever pulled that off in any European, world or Olympic competition. As the finals began, the Soviet pair of Natalya Bestemyanova and Andrei Bukin were in second place and Blumberg and Seibert were third. The experts figured the silver and bronze medals could go either way.

Ah, but if you had bet your bottom Mallomar on the experts, you'd be out of cookies. Blumberg and Seibert had choreographed their entire number around Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade, and in the finals, they skated to it so fluidly that the house fell raptly silent for the only time all week. At times the Americans seemed to paint pictures in the air as they flowed along. But the scores were a shocker: one 5.6, a cluster of 5.7s and two 5.8s for technical merit, and slightly higher marks for artistic impression—with one major exception. Cia Bordogna, the Italian judge, punched up a 5.5 on her computer for that category, setting off a puzzled murmur. That score proved to be vital, as we shall see.

Next up were the No. 2 Soviet couple, Marina Klimova and Sergei Ponomarenko, who skated well, if a touch mechanically, getting scores similar to those of Blumberg and Seibert. Then Bestemyanova and Bukin blew on with a fine performance, entirely different in nature, full of saucy hip-waggling and bursts of spirited humor. They got still higher marks, mostly 5.8s. And finally, there were Torvill and Dean.

The T and D program was perfect, possibly even transcendent, and it was skated entirely to Ravel's Bolero. This one should be shown only after the kids have gone to bed. It started with what appeared to many people to be long moments of unseemly writhing on the ice with the two skaters on their knees. Perhaps one writer best described it when he turned to a colleague in the press gallery and whispered, "How do you spell lubricious?" When T and D finished the four-minute show, the judges gave it six 5.9s and three 6.0s on technical merit—and then came the expected row of perfect 6.0s on artistic impression. For those who keep score on this skating phenomenon, these brought to 107 the number of perfect scores Torvill and Dean have received, dating back to 1978.

But the surprise came on the victory stand. There stood Their Greatnesses draped in gold. There were Bestemyanova and Bukin in the second spot, and Klimova and Ponomarenko in third—with Blumberg and Seibert looking stunned on the sidelines.

What in the world had happened? Just this: Judge Bordogna had determined on her own that Scheherazade was illegal music, despite the fact that head referee Lawrence Demmy of Great Britain had approved all the music beforehand. But such approval doesn't prohibit the judges from voting their own opinions, and Bordogna cited ISU figure skating rule No. 3.42, which provides that ice dancing must be adaptable to a dance floor as well as a skating rink. She gave them a low, low 5.5 for artistic impression and that threw the Americans into a tie with the No. 2 Soviet pair. The tie was broken in favor of the Soviets because one judge had given them a 5.8 in technical merit in the free dance and the U.S. pair a 5.7.

Which left a big question mark hanging in the air. If one could dance to Bolero, then why not Scheherazade? Of the latter, Bordogna said, "This music doesn't have the proper tempo. I challenge you to put it on the record player and dance to it." When reminded that Blumberg and Seibert had done exactly that, she said, "O.K., but I could put the Italian national anthem on a record player and find a way to dance to it, yet that doesn't mean it would be appropriate music." Bordogna claimed that four other judges had also found the music inappropriate, but had "disguised" their disapproval by giving the couple low scores on the first night, knowing Blumberg and Seibert would be skating to Scheherazade two evenings later. "We knew it was a judgmental sport, going in," said Seibert. "But right now, I don't know if we'll go on skating or not."

For their part, T and D went off to a gala party at the British camp, where Princess Anne herself, another certifiable Greatness, showed up and boogied until 1:30 in the morning.

One postscript. Last Friday, Dean rode down the Sarajevo bobsled run on the British four-man sled. What marks did he get? Perfect 6.0s, of course.

PHOTOOrser (right) won two out of three, but Hamilton carried off the gold and Old Glory. TWO PHOTOSWitt was a figure of beauty and vitality. PHOTOSumners was out to spin a win, but just missed. FOUR PHOTOSFlat out in their sensuous finale, Torvill and Dean whirled through a routine that lifted Their Greatnesses far above the rest of the field and lit the scoreboard to perfection. PHOTOOne low mark for their music put any medal out of reach for Blumberg and Seibert.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)