Can Anna Karenina and I be wrong?
There aren't too many people around who recall the occasion I won my Olympic Gold for ice dancing. Among the reasons for this puzzling collective forgetfulness, the most persuasive is probably that it is not always easy to remember something that has never taken place.
One can, of course, have one's Walter Mittyish aspirations. Some people claim that there is a great artist in all of us, so perhaps there is also a Skating Champion - though I have to admit that in my case he has so far kept a profoundly low profile. Of late, in fact, he has resorted to mere armchair observation, content that there are Curries and Hamills, Cousinses, Torvilles-and-Deans, and the like willing to spend every waking minute on ice so that the rest of us can have our breath taken away by their magicianship.
You never can tell, however. There is something about ice-skating that refuses to be solely a spectator sport. Most other sports leave me cold. Racing in all its forms seems a most remarkably silly way of moving from A to B. Why climb a mountain when you can fly over it? Rugby is for barbarians. Hockey is for schoolmistresses. Show jumping offers at best an awkward, land-based imitation of porpoises at play, but without their liquidity and laughter. Hang gliding and acrobatics look, I admit, exhilarating; but clearly neither is for someone who would rather not climb a stepladder and never, even as a ten-year-old, managed to master a forward roll.
But ice-skating! This is a sport that is noble and beautiful in every way; pure artistry; a tracing of lines of inevitable finesse; a translation into a resistless realm of perpetual waltz! It is sport and art unified; the sublimation of glide and glissando, of elegance and urbanity. One only has to look at Raeburn's painting of ''The Reverend Walker'' (surely he was misnamed) to know that ice-skating is a pastime that allows the gentlemanly and the poetic to dwell side by side; which belongs equally to buoyant reason and serious joy. This 18th-century Edinburgh clergyman, by the grace of water-gone-solid-with-cold and the inspiration of shoes-gone-slidy-with-steel, has attained that unattainable state where speed and stillness meet: that indescribable ideal of nonchalant balance.
Balance - yes: Therein lies (for some of us) a certain complexity. One has skated, don't misunderstand me, and one has done it both at the ice rink and along the canal. And one has brought to bear on the art immense concentration and dedication and perspiration. The trouble is in the wobblyfication. There is something about an edge of steel and a sheet of ice that can reduce the normally self-possessed and steady to an ungainly, spindle-shanked species of jelly.
This predicament - and I hope I don't sound bitter - is not helped at all by the ubiquity of numerous infants (no doubt brought to the scene in pushchairs by their ambitious parents) who suddenly flash past you in their polar one-piece warmup suits. In bewilderment and shock you sprawl like Bambi, clutching wildly at the nearest fellow skater (if you are indoors) or rhododendron (if you are outdoors), with cataclysmic consequences to said person or bush. As you attempt to right yourself, and them, two more little darlings arrive, give you a disbelieving glance, and proceed to pirouette backwards, combining a Triple Toe Walley and a Double Lutz with novel variations on the Flying Camel with a Quadruple Salchow Axel-Flip thrown in for good measure, followed by a Butterfly Layback Loop-Spin-Jump, faultlessly executed. As with so many things, you ask yourself how it is that everyone else seems to take in such skills with their mother's milk while you are still laboriously learning to stand. And the shame, worst of all, is public.
I believe ice rinks may be deserted in their thousands by potential skaters who would rather learn in private. But there is nothing for it, the embarrassment has to be faced, particularly in Britain, where nonartificial ice is in short supply. The eye must be kept on the prize and courage taken from notable precedent. There is Lady Astor, who was still skating ebulliently at 80. There is Anna Karenina. There is Wordsworth, who, as a boy, achieved heroic ecstasy, later to be turned into magnificent poetry, when he and his friends ''hissed along the polished ice in games confederate.'' There is Pepys, who skated with Nell Gwynn during the Great Frost of 1683. And - admired by his heart-fluttering wife on the bank - there is Victoria's dear Albert, keen royal skater.
Who knows? With application one might grow proficient enough to join the Edinburgh Skating Club, if it still exists. I'm not sure it does. But it was the first-ever skating club, founded in the mid-18th century. The test for initiates was to skate a complete circle on each foot and then to jump successively over one, two, and three hats placed on top of each other. The Reverend Walker, I feel sure, didn't turn a hair. A precedent indeed.