Katarina Witt's Carmen turned out to be good as gold after Debi Thomas's came to a bad end in Calgary
March 07, 1988

Even though the effervescent performances of Elizabeth Manley and Midori Ito had stolen the show from Katarina Witt Saturday night, when the figure skating gold medalist from East Germany arrived—a bit tipsy—to meet the press, she quickly charmed her way back into the spotlight. A few minutes earlier the parched Witt had consumed a light beer.

"First of all," she said in charmingly imperfect English, "I think [I] will be funny because in the doping control I was drinking beer, and I never drink beer."

So she hadn't skated her best. So the dueling Carmens—Witt and America's Debi Thomas—had been duds. So both the artistic beauty of the East and the athletic fighter of the West had been outskated in the freestyle by Canada's Manley and Japan's Ito. Still, Witt had done what she had set out to do: become the first women's singles skater since Sonja Henie in 1936 to win back-to-back gold medals in the Olympics.

In front of the reporters, Witt's program went pretty smoothly—for a while. She explained that she would like to be remembered as a good skater, one who launched an era in which practitioners of her sport tell a story on ice. She hinted that she might appear in ice shows, that it would be hard to give up skating cold turkey. She had seen Thomas skate that night, and it just showed that, like everyone else, Thomas is human. Yes, after her performance she had met Italian skier Alberto Tomba, who had won his second gold medal earlier that day. He had given her a signed poster of himself, inscribed, "Alla Cara Katerina [sic], Viele Grüsse [To the dear Katarina, best regards], Ciao Alberto Tomba." He also had drawn a picture of a heart on it. "I don't think he knows much about figure skating," she said with a coy smile.

Then all the tension of the competition began bubbling out in Witt's delightful, schoolgirlish peals. Reporters from all nations began to chuckle. "I try in German," Witt said, attempting to regain her composure. "Don't laugh...." But she gave up the struggle and said, "Oh, forget it," as she dissolved in laughter. It was a nice way to end.

The U.S. contingent—Thomas, Jill Trenary and Caryn Kadavy—no doubt would like to forget the whole night. Thomas not only failed in her attempt to wrest the gold medal from Witt, but she also faltered so badly during her free skating, missing three triple jumps, that Manley edged her out for the silver. "I learned a lot about life here," said Thomas, who had led Witt after the compulsories and the short program, and was clearly unimpressed by her bronze medal. "Everything is not Cinderella." Trenary skated cautiously and finished fourth, while Kadavy had to withdraw because of the flu.

To win, Witt not only had to overcome Thomas and the pressure of being the Olympic defender and the Olympic favorite, but also had to contend with the relentless sniping of her opponents' coaches, some of whom attempted to focus the judges' attentions on Witt's technical shortcomings. "It's a backdoor way of educating the judges," said Peter Dunfield, Manley's coach, "so they aren't buffooned by the media into looking at the wrong things."

Dunfield launched the offensive by attacking Witt's ostensibly provocative outfits and accusing her of "exploiting herself." He described the costume Witt planned to wear for her short program as best suited for "a circus...all that's missing is the horse and reins. We're here to skate in a dress, not in a G-string." The outfit in question was cut unusually high on the hips. "I think every man prefers looking at a well-built woman [rather] than someone built in the shape of a ball," Witt said. "Why not stress what we have that is attractive?"

Carlo Fassi, who coaches Trenary and Kadavy, agreed. "She is so beautiful that anything she puts on is wonderful," he said. "Anything. Everybody tries to sell the judge during the free skating." However, citing the "bare midriffs, no sleeves, bikini tops and feathers in the hair" he had seen at Calgary, Lawrence Demmy, an official of the International Skaters Union (ISU), suggested, "It's gone a bit over the top."

Demmy should have been at a skating exhibition Witt gave in Paris last October. There, carrying this stressing-what's-attractive concept to the extreme, Witt popped out of the front of her costume during a camel spin, an accident that was captured on film by the West German magazine Sports International and made its February issue a hotter trading item in Calgary than even the Jamaican bobsleigh pin.

About the only place where anyone could find true fault with Witt was in her technical skating. "There are 35 seconds in the middle of her long program when she does nothing but throw wrists and head and shoulders around," said Dunfield before the battle was joined. "The blade on the ice is doing nothing." But in Wednesday's compulsory figures, which had nothing to do with showmanship, Witt finished third, Thomas second and Manley fourth. "Katarina is a better figures skater than she was last year," said Alex McGowan, Thomas's coach.

The next night Witt seemed unusually nervous before the short program; she missed her triple loop-double toe loop combination in the warmups. To defuse the "horse-and-reins" apparel controversy, Witt and her coach, Jutta Müller, had discreetly added some feathers to the bottom of Witt's cerulean-blue showgirl outfit. Witt skated out and landed her combination jump—not quite effortlessly, but cleanly—happily stuck out her tongue and got on with the show. Her closing tap dance routine, traveling the length of the ice, was vintage Witt—showy and engaging, the consummate stylist at work.

Thomas and Witt gave the judges a clear contrast. Skating in her familiar black unitard to a Euro-synthesized disco tune, Something in My House, by the rock group Dead Or Alive, Thomas wasted little time in getting the Saddle-dome crowd clapping to the beat. But the judges were less easily impressed. "It was very dangerous music," said one judge after the competition. "It's hard to look pretty [skating] to that."

Looking pretty, of course, is not what Thomas's skating is about. The music, like it or not, was right for her: unconventional, driving, slightly rough around the edges. She nailed the technically difficult double loop-triple loop combination and skated the two-plus minutes flawlessly. "When Debi came off the ice I was really optimistic," said McGowan later. "She was fantastic."

Thomas's high marks for technical merit confirmed McGowan's feelings. But her marks for artistic presentation were not as strong as those given to Witt, who won the short program. Thomas, though, now stood first overall, Witt second. McGowan, seeing the second set of marks, held his nose in disgust—a questionable tactic, since the judges still had the long program in which to get in the last word.

"It was great having the audience boo my marks," said Thomas. "Just because I can do triple jumps doesn't mean I'm not artistic. My whole skating career I've known I've had to skate way, way better to get what I deserve."

So, as expected, it came down to a battle of the Carmens (both Witt and Thomas would be skating to music from the opera Carmen). To the winner would go the gold. Thomas would be the last to skate. "It's a long time to wait," she said after the draw was announced, "but it's my best chance of getting good marks."

Thomas was right about that. After the spectacular performance of Ito, who landed seven triple jumps and two double Axels to move up to fifth place overall, Witt, starting second among the final five skaters, left the audience strangely cold. Her gentle, seductive Carmen was seen as more style than substance. She landed only four triples, leaving out the most difficult, the triple loop, and as she feigned death on the ice at her program's conclusion, it seemed that her hopes for the gold had died with her. The judges concurred, giving her marks that Thomas could expect to surpass with a merely steady performance.

Manley skated next and was marvelous, bounding around the ice like a charismatic child on a playground, landing five perfect triples—though none in combination. The partisan crowd lapped it up. And why not? Manley's performance would bring the host country a silver surprise.

Still the competition was Thomas's to win. The judges had left plenty of room. McGowan leaned over the boards and grasped her hands. "We've been together 11 years," he said. "You're an American. You're the best. Show them that you're the best. This is your moment. Now, do it! Do it!" Then they slapped hands—gimme 10—as is their habit before Thomas skates.

The bells of Carmen that opened Thomas's program also tolled the end of her dream. In the first 20 seconds she attempted her most difficult move—the triple toe-triple toe. If she had landed it, as she had all week in practice, she would have been energized for her entire program. She feeds off the crowd's enthusiasm. She actually grows stronger as she skates.

But she two-footed her second triple landing. Her performance went downhill from there. "Once I missed, my heart wasn't in it," Thomas said. "It was very sad for me after all these years," said McGowan. "I've never seen Debi skate like that."

Thomas will get one more crack at Witt, in this month's world championships in Budapest. Then she will return to Stanford to pursue her premed degree. "I can get on with my life," she said. "I'll be fine."

As for Witt, soon all the world—not just an ice surface—may be her stage. "But the role I like best is of champion," she says.

PHOTORICHARD MACKSONWitt's laid-back approach almost killed more than just her character, but by evening's end she and coach Müller had everything well in hand. PHOTOMANNY MILLAN[See caption above.] PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIER[See caption above.] PHOTORICHARD MACKSONThomas lost her edge early and then looked on sadly as her Olympic dream was cast in bronze. PHOTOSTEVE FENN-ABC[See caption above.] PHOTORICHARD MACKSONManley launched herself on a silver streak and later conducted a quality check, just to be safe. PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIER[See caption above.] PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERThe irrepressible Ito wowed the crowd by landing seven triples during her final spin on the ice. FOUR ILLUSTRATIONS

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)