It is easy for Debi Thomas to describe the difference in her Carmen and Katarina Witt’s Carmen.
“She dies, and I don’t,” Thomas said.
The judges will decide tonight which one will win the gold medal and which one won’t. Through the compulsory figures and the short program at the Winter Olympics, the United States’ Thomas leads East Germany’s Witt. But either can win with a victory in tonight’s four-minute long program, which accounts for 50% of the final score.
Both will perform to Georges Bizet’s opera about a Spanish femme fatale who betrays her lover and dies by his hand. Last week, in men’s figure skating, it was “the Battle of the Brians.” This week, in women’s figure skating, it is “the Battle of the Carmens.”
The outcome figures to be at least a footnote in Winter Olympics history. If Witt wins, she will be the first woman since Norway’s Sonja Henie (1928, ’32, ’36) to repeat as Olympic champion. Witt, 22, upset the United States’ Rosalyn Sumners four years ago in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia. If Thomas, 20, finishes among the first three, she will be the first black ever to win a Winter Games medal.
Thomas and her coach, Scottish-born Alex McGowan, have expressed concern that the winner will be decided not by the two skaters but by the nine judges. After she finished second to Witt in Thursday night’s short program, Thomas and McGowan said they believe that some of the judges might have decided in favor of Witt even before the competition began.
Judges’ scores, like statistics, can be interpreted any number of ways. A case could be made that Eastern Bloc judges ganged up on Thomas. All three had Witt first in the short program. Two, the East German and the Czechoslovakian, had Thomas fourth.
But her lowest scores came from a British judge, who didn’t much care for either Thomas or Witt. She had Canada’s Elizabeth Manley first and the United States’ Caryn Kadavy second. At the same time, Witt’s lowest scores came from the British judge and the U.S. judge, both of whom had her in third place.
Speculation Friday among those who follow figure skating closely was that McGowan, by making an issue of the scoring, was attempting to pressure the judges into giving Thomas higher marks tonight, much as a basketball coach might attempt to intimidate officials by drawing an early technical foul. The strategy, if that is what it is, could work against Thomas should the judges feel unfairly maligned, but it is a calculated gamble.
The fact is that Thomas probably got what she deserved, the high scores for her required elements and the relatively average scores for presentation. The man who choreographed both of her programs, 1980 Olympic men’s champion Robin Cousins, said the idea behind the short program was not to wow the judges with her artistry but to do technically demanding jumps and spins, stand up for the entire 2 minutes 15 seconds and put herself in position to win with her long program. She did all of that.
A truer test of Thomas’ ability to impress judges with her style comes tonight. She has been working diligently on the presentation of her long program, not only with Cousins but also with the American Ballet Theatre’s Mikhail Baryshnikov and one of his choreographers, George de la Pena.
“Basically, we’re trying to structure a totally different approach to the character,” said De la Pena, who is Spanish. “It’s what it is, her program. We want to bring out the fearless, dangerous, exciting part of Carmen, the parts we love about her, the parts we wish we all had, the abandon.”
Thomas said she is not concerned that both she and Witt are skating to “Carmen.”
“I ran into a skating friend, a Hungarian ice dancer last summer, and I told him how excited I was about doing ‘Carmen,’ ” she said. “His face dropped. He said, ‘Is it too late to change it?’ He told me he had just been to Katarina’s home in Karl Marx Stadt and that Katarina also was doing ‘Carmen.’
“But I told myself, ‘To heck with it.’ I said to myself that two Carmens might bore the judges, but that I’d just have to beat Carmen at her own game.
“I’ve given it quite a bit of thought since then. I don’t think the judges will be turned off by the second skater who performs to that music. I don’t think that will be a factor because Katarina and I each have a very different interpretation. The judges will see two very different Carmens.”
The difference in the two Carmens is that Thomas attempts to portray the character, while Witt acts out the story, concluding her long program with the dramatic death scene.
“Quite frankly, right now Debi doesn’t feel like dying,” De la Pena said. “What we’ve been trying to do with Debi is to get her true emotions out and visible. Without someone there on the ice to kill you, it’s a little artificial.”
Witt defends her interpretation.
“You can just skate to the music, or you can try to express the music,” she said. “The judges have to decide what they prefer.”
In past competitions, the judges have preferred Witt’s long programs. Even in 1986, when Thomas won the world championship, Witt finished first in the long program. She finished second overall because she missed an element in the short program. Last year, Witt finished first in the short and the long programs to regain the title she won in 1984 and 1985.
“I love Katarina,” Cousins said. “She has that quality, that ooziness. She oozes appeal. She’s an East German trained to perform like she’s from Hollywood. She looks like she’s having fun on the ice. She can make you feel like she’s doing her program for the first time.
“That’s her personality. Even though she’s been trained like a robot, you can’t train someone to have ‘ it .’ There’s no question Katarina has ‘ it .’ ”
“Debi just gives it to you,” Cousins said. “It’s on the plate. If you like it, fine. If you don’t, you don’t.”
Thomas’ advantage is in her athleticism. She has five triple jumps in her long program, including a difficult triple toe-loop, triple toe-loop combination within the first few seconds. That is her make-or-break move, one that is too risky for Witt. Her combination is a less demanding triple toe-loop, double toe-loop.
“When it comes to challenging yourself, Debi’s the girl,” Cousins said.
Thomas said De la Pena guided her through the move.
“He worked a miracle with me,” Thomas said. “He told me to put on a big smile, as if I was saying, ‘Two triples? Big deal. I’m going to eat this thing up.’ Then he just stood there by the rail when I skated and said, ‘Hey, you’re supposed to be Carmen. Come on. Turn me on. Be sensual. Keep my attention.’ ”
Among the six medal contenders, Witt skates second tonight. Since Thomas skates last, Witt will not know whether she has to skate aggressively to win. McGowan said he believes Witt will skate conservatively, perhaps opting for easier jumps than planned to make sure that she stays upright and puts the pressure on Thomas.
That is fine with Thomas, who said during the national championships last month in Denver that she hoped to skate after Witt.
“So that she can do her amazing program and I can have a few minutes to recuperate before I have to skate,” she said.
BATTLE OF THE CARMENS
Katarina Witt Karl Marx Stadt, East Germany Hometown 22 Age 5-5 Height 119 Weight Olympics (first in 1984); Results in world championships (first major in 1984, ’85, ’87, second competition in ’86); European champion- ships (first 1983-88). Georges Bizet’s “Carmen” Program Actress Career Goal
Katarina Witt Debi Thomas Karl Marx Stadt, East Germany San Jose 22 20 5-5 5-5 119 119 Olympics (first in 1984); World championships (first world championships (first (in 1986, second in ’87, fifth in 1984, ’85, ’87, second in ’85); national champion- in ’86); European champion- ships (first in 1986, ’88, second ships (first 1983-88). in ’85, ’87, sixth in ’84). Georges Bizet’s “Carmen” Georges Bizet’s “Carmen” Actress Orthopedist