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JIM MURRAY

This Ice Show Will Have a Golden List of Skaters

October 12, 1993|JIM MURRAY

She was Hitler's favorite athlete. She didn't particularly relish it, but the lovesick Fuehrer was smitten. It's a wonder he didn't put her in a tank or make her a field marshal.

She had this little turned-up nose, blonde hair and on skates she looked like something that should be painted by Degas or perched on top of a wedding cake.

She did what no other woman on figure skates has ever been able to do--win three consecutive Olympics.

She also founded a whole industry--traveling ice shows.

What happened was, Hollywood beckoned. And Sonja Henie became one of the biggest box-office stars of her time. You had Esther Williams in water--and Sonja Henie on ice. She spawned a new entertainment industry. It took the place of vaudeville. Pictures such as "Sun Valley Serenade" broke records and turned world attention to her sport.

There is no more beautiful spectacle in athletics than figure skating. Michael Jordan going to the basket, Muhammad Ali giving a recital for eight-ounce gloves or Willie Mays basketing a line drive can't compare. Part ballet, part Busby Berkeley, part concert, it is as artistic as anything that hangs in the Louvre.

But is it sport? Before Henie, it was hard to think of anything performed in a sequined costume to the strains of Rachmaninoff as sport. But Henie was one of the first to show that not all athletes had to have a ball or a stick in their hands to qualify. What she did was as clearly athletic as an 80-yard run or a power-play goal.

She put an ice rink in every suburb in America, including her own edifice on Wilshire Boulevard in Westwood. Stage mothers quit teaching their daughters to dance and taught them to skate instead.

She was born in Norway and she was on more ice than a polar bear growing up. She could do everything on skates Anna Pavlova could do in a tutu. Before her, the sport tended to be a tedious figure-eight scratching on ice as dull to watch and as exacting to inscribe as the Lord's Prayer on the head of a pin. After her, the sport trended more and more to the freestyle choreography the audiences loved. The school figures descended from 60% of the total scoring to 40%, ultimately to 0%.

As a top network executive with ABC sports for more than 25 years, Jim Spence had worked intimately with these Olympic ice follies long enough to notice it was the only televised sporting event that could rival a Broadway musical, at the same time offering the suspense of competition.

Spence was one of the founding coordinating producers of "Wide World of Sports," the first sports show in history to show that there was high drama in sports where one man didn't have to hit, block or throw at another but could compete against a clock, a standard or an aesthetic marking.

Spence was part of the Roone Arledge years at ABC when the network took sports, so to speak, out of Yankee Stadium and out onto the slopes and rinks of the Alps or Rockies. The public was enchanted and the ratings were huge, even in places in the sun belts of the world where the only ice came with scotch on it.

The lessons were not lost on Spence, who began to plan the ultimate ice show, an extravaganza that would feature exclusively gold medal winners in figure skating--every Olympic champion he could find in any corner of the world.

This was easier dreamed than done. Like champions everywhere, some skaters were prima donnas, others were cantankerous and some had an exaggerated idea of their box-office value. Spence had to contend with the fact that many had been lionized in their home countries where, unlike the United States, a gold medal in any sport was a rare achievement. These skaters were not going to show up for an airline ticket and room at the Holiday Inn.

Spence believed in the concept enough so that he was patient, persuasive and persistent, even though there were times he thought he should change his name to Jim Suspense .

There have been 68 gold medals awarded in Olympics since figure skating started in 1908. Nineteen of the winners are dead. Of the remaining, nearly 40 will make appearances at Spence's show, which he has called "Skates of Gold." It will take place at the Boston Garden on Oct. 31 and will be filmed for presentation on ABC-TV on the eve of the Lillehammer Winter Games in February.

An audacious idea, the show will first present active gold medalists from Peggy Fleming, who won her skating gold in 1968, to Kristi Yamaguchi, who won hers in '92, to Brian Boitano, '88, to Scott Hamilton, '84.

Quipped Hamilton: "I didn't think it would be possible to get all these gold medalists in one country, let alone one arena."

A second category will showcase Olympians of the past, such as Tenley Albright, now a Boston surgeon but an Olympic champion in 1956. Also present will be Germany's Ernst Baier, who won a gold medal at Garmisch-Partenkirchen in 1936. The last portion of the show will be devoted to footage of deceased champions, among them the incomparable Henie.

The result will be a gaudy kaleidoscope of a sport from its inception, when skates were strapped on the shoes, to the modern sport on equipment as finely tooled as Fred Couples' nine-iron.

It's an ice show La Henie could be proud of, skating's version of the senior tour combined with the regular, the whole story of skating, sport's ice age, the prettiest sport of them all, the only one Tchaikovsky ever wrote for.

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