Go Figure: Rules Change for Ice Skaters

The World Figure Skating Championships held the year before the Winter Olympics are always crucial for competitors: Rankings at this event help establish skaters' reputations and therefore become a factor in determining Olympic success.

This year's contest at Munich, which NBC is covering Friday-Sunday, is not only an Olympic warm-up but the beginning of a new chapter in skating history. These will be the first-ever World Championships in which compulsory figures--the very element which gave the sport its name--will not be skated.

Figures--tracings and retracings of figure-eight variations skated on the edge of the blade--have been diminishing in importance through the years, last year counting for only 20% of the scoring in the men's and ladies' divisions (pairs and dance competitors did not skate figures). Under the new scoring system, the short program of seven prescribed moves set to music counts 30%, with the long free-skating program counting 70%.

"Personally, I'm sorry to see the figures go. That diminishes the technical quality of skating," said David Michaels, the Agoura-based producer of NBC's coverage. "We'll be doing a feature on what would have happened over the past 60 years had there not not been figures: (1984 Olympic champion) Scott Hamilton would have lost to Brian Orser. At the 1988 Olympics, (silver medalist) Liz Manley would have beaten (two-time champion) Katarina Witt."

This year's event also marks the first time NBC is airing the World Championships, which belonged to CBS since 1983 following two decades of ABC coverage. Half of NBC's scheduled six hours air in prime time, continuing a practice CBS established four years ago as a reflection of the sport's increasing popularity. (ABC's coverage of the 1988 Olympic ladies' finals featuring Katarina Witt and Debi Thomas, for instance, received the highest ratings of any Saturday night network programming since "Roots" in 1977 and was the year's second-highest rated sporting event, after the Super Bowl.)

Producer Michaels joined NBC in July after seven years at the helm of the World Championships for CBS. His on-air team includes veteran anchor Dick Enberg and analysts Sandra Bezic, the 1970-1974 Canadian pair champions who choreographed Brian Boitano's gold medal-winning 1988 Olympic program; 1980 Olympic gold medalist Robin Cousins, and NBC reporter Tom Hammond.

Michaels will ride herd over nine cameras, including two that show perspectives instituted during his CBS tenure. "Joe Aceti, who also directed a lot of skating for ABC, and I introduced the backstage shot," he says. "We broke an International Skating Union rule to show Scott Hamilton preparing for Worlds. We had to pretend our camera was broken, or that we were carrying something else. Now, it's an accepted shot. And I think we were the first to put a camera directly above and behind the judges. Skaters skate to the judges, so we wanted to get their point of view."

Before those cameras ever roll, Michaels will spend considerable time observing skaters' programs in practice and talking with coaches and judges, in order to design his coverage accordingly. "I don't come to the week with pre-edited features," he says. "I like to see what happens."

Even then, spur-of-the-moment decisions about features are sometimes in order, should a low-ranked competitor unexpectedly do well or an off-ice drama transpire. Such was the case at last year's Worlds when the United States' Christopher Bowman and his then-longtime coach Frank Carroll bickered their way through most of the competition. "We'd had an interesting little piece about their relationship, but it wasn't as good as what was developing," Michaels recalls. "So we dumped it and went with the live (material)."

Events leading up to this year's competition should give Michaels all the feature ideas he could possibly use. Defending Worlds champion Jill Trenary of the United Sates has withdrawn, for instance, because of recent ankle surgery. At press time it was also possible that the 1989 champion, Japan's Midori Ito, also would drop out because of recent surgery.

With those dropouts, U.S. rising Kristi Yamaguchi would therefore be outed as the likely winner--until last month's national championships when Tonya Harding won the title while making history as the first American woman to perform a triple axel jump in competition.

In ice dancing, defending champion Marina Klimova of the Soviet Union tested positive for drugs after she and partner-husband Sergi Ponomarenko won the European Champion; if she retests positive she could be suspended for two years, leaving the top spot open for the trend-setting Isabelle and Paul Duchesnay of France.

When it comes to the actual competition, commentary can be as important as the visual images.

For NBC's analysts, the challenge is "to be honest diplomatically," Cousins said. "You have to be objective without being derogatory, and be able to explain your opinion."

Bezic said they look for "the total package each competitor presents--the point of view of the performance, the choices made, the skater's progression from the previous year."

The World Figure Skating Championships air Friday-Sunday on NBC. At press time, the men's finals were set to air Friday at 8 p.m. The preliminary dance, pairs and ladies' events air Saturday at 11:30 a.m., with the pairs finals airing Sunday at noon. The ladies' and dance finals air Sunday at 7 p.m.

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