Four years ago Kurt Browning, the Canadian who won four world
championships between 1989 and '93, was banished from amateur
figure skating. Last weekend he got a reprieve of sorts. He was
invited to skate against the 1998 Olympic champion, Ilia Kulik
of Russia, and beat him if he could.
"I had no idea it was something historic," Browning, 32, said of
the Grand Slam of Figure Skating at the North Charleston (S.C.)
Coliseum, the first of 10 "open" competitions to be held this
season, pitting traitorous professionals like Browning against
establishment amateurs like Kulik, all with the International
Skating Union's blessing. The ISU, which determines eligibility,
allows a skater to remain eligible for Olympic competition as
long as he or she skates only in ISU-sanctioned events. Prize
money? No limit. Endorsements? Bring 'em on. Just don't skate in
an unsanctioned event.
Ottavio Cinquanta, president of the ISU, said he was driven to
try open competition by Oksana Baiul's decision to turn pro at
16, after winning the gold medal at the 1994 Olympics. Like
Browning and many others (including 1998 Nagano gold medalist
Tara Lipinski) Baiul turned her back on the rigid structure of
the ISU's events in favor of made-for-TV spectaculars. Since
then, as Cinquanta--and anyone with a remote control--could see,
professional skaters have been appearing in so many made-for-TV
events of such varying quality that the shows were threatening
not only the integrity but also the popularity of the sport.
"Last year ratings were the lowest in 10 years because people
were tired of the made-for-TV events," says Eddie Einhorn, TV
consultant to the ISU. "For 20 years I've been telling the ISU
it's making a big mistake in not dealing with the skater after he
or she is done with the Olympics."
By sanctioning 10 events this year, and allowing amateurs to
skate alongside pros, Cinquanta hopes he has found a way to hold
on to both TV ratings and skaters for future Olympics. Last
season there were 10 unsanctioned events on American TV; this
season there will be two. "We are investing to be sure that
there aren't ineligible skaters in the future," Cinquanta said.
In Charleston, the women's winner was Michelle Kwan, the
18-year-old Nagano silver medalist who hopes to return for the
2002 Games. "This is a wonderful format," said Kwan, who
collected $40,000 for beating professional Yuka Sato in a
semifinal round, then Maria Butyrskaya, who is likely to be one
of Kwan's main rivals in Salt Lake City, in a one-on-one final.
As for Browning, he was beaten in the semis by Kulik, who then
lost to Todd Eldredge. Could this be a first step toward
reinstatement for Browning and others? "No," Cinquanta said.
"You cannot leave then come back tomorrow."
Still, after the competition ended, Cinquanta approached
Browning. He held out his hand. "Bravo," said Cinquanta. "You are
a great champion. We are proud of you."