No figure skater has a big edge as '88 Olympic countdown begins

With the Winter Olympics at Calgary, Alberta, less than two years away, trying to predict the outcome of the four figure skating events is still a task filled with uncertainty. Although the champions in each discipline attempted to defend their titles in Geneva recently, three of the crowns changed feet and the fourth was retained only by a 5-4 decision from the judges.

These results underline the fact that nobody in this graceful art-sport currently stands head and shoulders above the rest. The run-up to Calgary should see much jockeying at the top.

The men's outlook is particularly intriguing. With no intention to detract from the obvious merits of the new world champion, the triumph in Geneva of Californian Brian Boitano has to be termed a shock result.

With Boitano in fourth place behind Alexander Fadeev, Jozef Sabovcic, and Brian Orser, such a victory had appeared highly improbable before the final free skating portion of the program. But then came a remarkable series of miscues by the leaders.

First, Fadeev, the Soviet defending champion, fell from a triple loop jump, failed a triple axel, and made several other major mistakes.

Next came Boitano, who put the pressure on his other rivals with a spectacular performance featuring five different triples, including the axel, and no major errors.

Sabovcic, a Czechoslovak who is champion of Europe, then fell from a triple flip and landed only two other triples. The title was being handed on a plate to Orser.

Last of the four to skate, the Canadian twice failed to land the triple axel, the specialty he so seldom misses, and finished a marginally second best to Boitano.

The two, in fact, ended equal on overall points, which meant that Boitano, as top scorer in the final, won the title by a tie-break, with Orser runner-up for a third consecutive year.

Will Orser now remain an amateur until Calgary? Disheartened by his failure to capitalize on a golden chance, he told me in Geneva: ``I need a month to consider this. I cannot make up my mind yet.'' Like Fagin in ``Oliver!,'' he is reviewing the situation and will have to think it out again.

The situation is hardly clearer among the women. Debi Thomas, another Californian and the first black world champion, did well to deny a third straight title to Katarina Witt, the East German Olympic gold medalist who, for once, narrowly failed to come back from behind. Given the worst of the final draw, Witt had to skate before her main challengers, but still won the long free skating portion, getting two maximum 6's for presentation.

A not fully fit Tiffany Chin took the bronze for a third successive year, and even in her first international season another American, Caryn Kadavy, appeared a certain Calgary medal contender.

Thomas, a Stanford University freshman, may now have difficulty alternating her crown with her studies. She is the first US champion to pursue a full-scale college education while still competing since Tenley Albright did so more than 30 years ago.

``I hope to find enough time for both,'' said Debi, ``but my Stanford progress is a prime consideration, and no way will I put it second to skating.''

The world pairs victory by Moscow's Sergei Grinkov, 19, and his diminutive partner, Ekatarina Gordeeva, 14, signaled the emergence of a partnership that may well continue undefeated to the 1988 Olympics.

Deposing their Leningrad compatriots Elena Valova and Oleg Vasiliev -- what a remarkable accomplishment -- they denied the Olympic gold medalists a third world title in four years.

Gordeeva, a mere 4 ft. 10 in. and 77 lbs., captured the spectators' hearts as her powerfully built partner manipulated her like a puppet on a string, achieving overhead lifts and triple throws with consummate ease.

Grinkov, who is 13 inches taller, takes effective advantage of this height disparity; but one has to wonder how much Gordeeva may grow before the Olympics and what effect this could have on their routines.

Only a 5-4 split by the judges enabled Natalia Bestemianova and Andrei Bukin to retain their ice dance title. The victory was in doubt to the final minutes as two Soviet compatriots, Marina Klimova and Sergei Ponomarenko, almost snatched a triumph many believed they had earned.

In both the pairs and dance competitions, Canadian partnerships prevented Soviet sweeps of the medals, with Cynthia Coull and Mark Rowsome winning the bronze in the former event and Tracy Wilson and Rob McCall taking third place in the latter.

It is a happy coincidence for Canada that the host nation at the next Winter Olympics may be able to field serious medal contenders in all four figure skating events -- not forgetting the effervescent, fast-advancing Elizabeth Manley among the women. Quotable quote

Margaret Wade, a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, on her deceptive composure as a Mississippi high school and Delta State college coach: ``I'm not a very emotional person outwardly, but if I had a Kleenex in my pocket after a game it would be confetti.''

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