US Figure-Skating Head Fends Off Promoters

When Claire Ferguson, the president of the United States Figure Skating Association, consents to a media interview, she's careful to check her agenda. She's available for questioning, it's just that scheduling can be tricky, what with a trip to Russia or grandchild-tending to work around.

It's late spring when a Monitor reporter and photographer pull up to the Ferguson homestead in scenic Jamestown, R.I. One might imagine this a quiet time of year for figure skating and Ferguson, especially now that the hullabaloo surrounding the Winter Olympics and the Nancy Kerrigan-Tonya Harding controversy has passed.

Inside the Fergusons' sun room, which looks out onto Coasters Harbor, it is peaceful. (Telephone calls, meanwhile, start to pile up on the Fergusons' an-swering machine.)

Amid the disintegrating tranquility, Ferguson explains that she is entering her third and final year as the association's elected leader. There's a provision that allows for longer service, but she says she's not interested. ``This is a difficult job for a volunteer, a very difficult job,'' she says. ``It takes a huge time commitment and saps a lot of emotional energy.''

The association's involvement with the Kerrigan-Harding affair, Ferguson says, hasn't seriously taxed her. The general direction of the sport, she says, is her greatest ongoing concern.

Last month, the biggest annual congress in the history of US skating was held across the bay in Newport. There were 417 delegates, some 700 votes (including proxy ballots), and enough wrangling for three conventions. ``The room was crowded, people came with agendas, and they were practically violent ... about a lot of things,'' Ferguson says.

Part II of an administrative doubleheader begins today in Boston, when the International Skating Union's week-long Congress and Council convenes.

Representatives from 49 countries will try to reach a consensus on various burning issues, including eligibility.

This was the first year that professionals were allowed to skate in the Olympics, and on the whole it was deemed a success. Unless the rules are tightened, however, Ferguson foresees a situation in which skaters and promoters take over.

``A number of people want to start their own challenge cup, get their own sponsors, pick their own judges, and run their own competition,'' she says. ``It would be a little bit like what has happened in tennis, with an elite athlete-driven professional tour....''

The Ferguson model would emulate what has happened in track and field and gymnastics, where national and international governing bodies maintain control through sanctioning powers. This, she argues, permits promoter-driven events to exist, but requires that certain standards be met and some funds be used for the general benefit of the sport.

Ferguson is the first woman to serve as president of the US Figure Skating Association. She says some people assumed she was ``just a housewife'' who would be overmatched by the growing pressures of the job when she was voted into office in 1992.

This view, she says, ignores various important life experiences, including her college education at Michigan State University, work as a schoolteacher, and business background (vice president of her husband's veterinary practice).

Then, too, raising three children has provided many lessons in ``common sense,'' and, as she says, ``I think you have to have a basic skating sense and understand what the full picture is.'' The latter has been acquired during more than 30 years as an active member of the US skating association, including many as a judge and board member.

What she says ``catapulted'' her into ``the political scene'' was her experience as a 1980 US Olympic team leader. That put her behind the scenes with parents, skaters, and coaches, and convinced her that there needed to be substantially more funding of Olympic hopefuls.

Ferguson asserts that one of her best decisions was to hire Jerry Lace as the association's full-time executive director. She considers Lace the ideal person to deal with many of the complex operational matters that fall to the 30-person staff at US figure- skating headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Ferguson has held the association's reins during a dramatic period in the sport's development. Association membership has doubled, to more than 120,000, since 1988; the budget is ``$8 million, pushing $10 million''; and people are flocking to see the numerous figure-skating events or watching them on television. After the Olympics, a performance by touring champions in St. Petersburg, Fla., drew 28,000 spectators - believed to be the largest skating crowd in history.

And this fall, CBS Sports has announced it will air figure skating head-to-head against pro football broadcasts.

Despite concerns about what skating's future may hold, Ferguson expects that Lace will bring continuity to the US Figure Skating Association when she steps down. ``We'll be fine,'' she says.

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