Women's Skating Ends With Triumph and a Tear

Baiul finds a coach and mother in a former champion's trainer

WHEN all the ice chips had finally settled at the Hamar Olympic Amphitheatre, the talk of the town and the figure-skating world was no longer of Nancy and Tonya, but of Oksana, a long, lissome teenager from Ukraine.

To a lesser degree, the viewing public and the media were left to discuss the obscure world of figure-skating judging that came under increasing fire here.

There were no sour grapes from the camp of US skater Nancy Kerrigan, since teenager Oksana Baiul matched Kerrigan jump for jump. But some observers became uneasy when the narrow split decision was toted up and there was an echo of old cold-war politics.

Five of the nine judges - from Poland, the Czech Republic, Ukraine, China, and Germany's eastern section - gave Baiul the nod, while the West, as represented by Great Britain, Canada, Japan, and the United States came down on Kerrigan's side.

Kerrigan skated perhaps the long program of her life, and was cascaded with enough wrapped flowers for an FTD convention, but 16-year-old Baiul was a whisker better artistically in the judges' eyes. Thus the reigning world champion became the youngest Olympic women's skating champion since a precocious Norwegian 15-year-old by the name of Sonja Henie took the Olympic gold in 1928.

Tonya Harding, meanwhile, provided yet another unusual moment in her figure-skating career. Out of the medal hunt after a flawed short program, the reigning American champion, the focus of a controversy that has attracted worldwide media attention, confronted one final crisis before her tumultuous Olympic voyage was completed.

When a lace broke on one of her gold-bladed skates, Harding almost missed the start of her performance. Forty-five seconds later she stopped in mid-program complaining that the lace would not hold her and requested a restart. Several skaters later, she took the ice again, skating an undisputed eighth-place finish. She failed to execute her trademark triple axel.

Kerrigan and Harding both dreamed of gold medals. Kerrigan left the Olympics disappointed yet consoled because, as she put it, ``I think I skated great.'' A new Disney client, she heads to Disney World for a little R&R, then possibly on to the world championships and a North American tour.

Harding returns home to face the music, the continuing heat of investigators and authorities trying to determine her role, if any, in the Jan. 6 attack on Kerrigan at the US figure skating championships in Detroit.

Harding's ex-husband, who has confessed his role in an insiduous plot to disable Kerrigan, has implicated his former wife, but she continues to profess her innocence.

Despite her many detractors, Harding has displayed a lot of determination in dealing with numerous challeges in a far-from-rosy personal life.

Kerrigan, too, has had to draw on reservoirs of personal grit to maintain her focus and cope with the extraordinary circumstances surrounding her Olympic journey.

Baiul has not had it easy, either. ``The difficult life I've had has given me the strength to compete,'' she said after the tears finally dried following Friday night's triumph.

A broken home, a father who dropped out of sight, and the passing of her mother three years ago left the woman-child champion an orphan.

When her situation came to the attention of Galina Zmievskaya, coach of Ukrainian 1992 Olympic winner Viktor Petrenko, she took Baiul under her wing and now serves as a second mother, as well as a coach, to her.

A year ago, as a virtual unknown on the figure-skating scene, Baiul sprang her talents, including some of the longest, most expressive hands ever in women's skating, on a sport receptive to her kind of verve, charisma, and grace. She was an exquisitely balanced Bambi with a lot of Bolshoi ballerina mixed in.

This season Baiul struggled to maintain her position. She lost out to France's athletic Surya Bonaly, a former gymnast, at last month's European championships.

Then on the practice day between the short and long Olympic programs she had a jarring collision with Germany's Tanja Szewczenko. The next afternoon, only hours before the the gold medal went up for grabs, Baiul looked very shaky and made an early, teary departure from a warmup session.

She proved to be a clutch performer, however, when she had to follow Kerrigan onto the ice after the Stoneham, Mass., native appeared to have nailed down the gold medal with a superb effort.

Baiul came through with flying colors, even if the event organizers didn't. They couldn't find a recording of the Ukrainian national anthem, causing a long delay in the medals ceremony.

``It will be here soon,'' promised the arena announcer in a humorous punctuation mark to an evening of suspense.

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