Figure skating isn't exactly a sport, and it isn't Swan Lake. It is, rather, that frozen netherworld where community theater meets the double axel, in costumes on loan from the floor show at Caesar's.
It's no wonder that the skaters themselves are often quivering bundles of nerves and that their moms and dads are known as the pushiest, most irritating stage parents in captivity. If you had to watch your whining six-year-old sprawl all over the ice for eleven hours a day while Lawrence Welk's greatest hits and Mantovani versions of Michael Jackson tunes blasted away from speakers the size of dump trucks, you'd be in a bad mood, too.
The only good thing about figure skating used to be the breathless TV commentary of ex-performer Dick Button. Worked up to a contralto lilt, the man could loose torrents of nonsense equal to any politician's or crooked police chief's, in a language comprehended by just nine people on the entire planet. Miss ya, Dick. Miss your triple lutz.
Now figure skating has the Nancy Kerrigan scandal.
It comes just in time to pump up the TV ratings for that quadrennial fraud, the Olympic Games. If you didn't know better, wouldn't you suspect the great TV network minds of cooking up the whole Kerrigan assault thing to get U.S. citizens interested in the local angle? After all, now that the Evil Empire has disintegrated, we can no longer vent our jingoist rage by waving little American flags in the faces of those godless commies from Murmansk and Gdansk who would wrest our precious gold medals away. Because these are the winter games, there are no Cubans to hate. And the last time Bill Clinton looked, all the Germans were our allies--despite their awful food and the rise of neo-Nazism.
As far as actual competition goes, we Yanks don't usually have much to crow about, nationalism-wise, once the cold weather sets in. We never have a shot in ski jumping, or luge--care to plant your ass on a 400-mile-an-hour ice skate? The only U.S. citizens who give a damn about curling inhabit igloos in certain suburbs of Minneapolis. Speed skating's the province of Hans Brinker and assorted Ukrainians. And the U.S. hockey team usually gets knocked off by some dark horse juggernaut from Outer Mongolia.
Bobsledding? The last time an American team threatened to go the course faster than Switzerland's number four sled, Citizen Kane was still riding Rosebud.
But in the Kerrigan affair we've suddenly got it all--a cheap little all-American soap opera that will give everybody the excuse to tune in an event that would otherwise have the appeal of high school bowling. By the time Kerrigan, the ostensible favorite for the gold medal prior to her recent troubles, laces up her skates next month in Lillehammer, she'll be America's sweetheart, the darling of the tabloids, the deathless "portrait in courage" sports fans are always looking for.
Because someone from an enemy camp may have whacked her on the leg with a crowbar.
This is a perfect extension of the neurotic hothouse atmosphere of international figure skating, where competing mothers regularly shout curses at each other and where seething resentments, crying jags and hurt feelings are more common than in any corner saloon. Until now, though, the gravest threats to most competitors have probably been corruption among the judges, who see exactly what they want to see, and persistent speculation about the romantic preferences of some of the performers. No longer. At this writing, federal authorites were investigating the husband and bodyguard of Kerrigan's archrival, Tonya Harding, for possible involvement in the January 6 assault that knocked Kerrigan out of the U.S Olympic team trials in Detroit.
Harding won the Detroit competition in Kerrigan's absence. But as fate and malleable Olympic committee policy would have it, the injured Kerrigan was later named to the team without skating for the berth. If Harding's husband, Jeff Gillooly, and her Zamboni-shaped bodyguard, Shawn Eric Eckardt, actually had anything to do with the attack, their ploy may have already backfired: Nancy and Tonya will go one-on-one on the ice at Lillehammer, with (let's see here) $5 to $10 million in product endorsements and appearance fees hanging in the balance, not to mention the Olympic gold.
Network executives will love all the manufactured melodrama, of course, and viewers can always hope that the combatants come to the rink prepared not only to perform the compulsory school figures but to go at each other with stilettos. The best thing that could happen, of course, would be for both American skaters to go skidding on their butts during the long program, opening the way for an unknown teenager from Suriname or South Korea to spin them both into the footnotes of history. Talk about a death spiral.
In the meantime, the Kerrigan/Harding flap holds immediate lessons for us all. The next time the Raiders get a notion to beat the Broncos in the playoffs, why not simply plant a bomb on the L.A. team plane? Dodgers edging close to the Giants again in the pennant race? Poison the water at the hotel. Andretti talking big about winning this year at Indy? Take a wrench to his rack-and-pinion just before time trials.
And don't worry: Ratings are everything.
Silent Steve Carlton has been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, which is fine.
Orlando Cepeda has been locked out, which is a disgrace.
In his last year of eligibility for the Hall, the Baby Bull got 335 votes from the baseball writers--seven short of making the trip to Cooperstown. After fifteen years of futility he will now be dropped from the annual ballot. He'll get another, lesser shot a few years from now in the veterans' committee voting.
Shameful. The former Giants first baseman hit .297 in his seventeen-year career, just fifteen points fewer than Hall of Fame first baseman Johnny Mize and sixteen points behind Hank Greenberg, another Cooperstownian who played first. Cepeda, a perennial All-Star and a fine fielder, stroked 379 home runs (20 more than the original "Big Cat," 48 more than Hammerin' Hank) and he batted in more runs than either of them--1,365.
While no first-sacker will ever approach most of Yankee great Lou Gehrig's lifetime numbers (.340 B.A., 493 home runs, 1,990 RBI), Cepeda comes closer than anyone in a couple of categories: For one, he played just 40 fewer games--2,124--than the Iron Horse.
But Lou Gehrig never got busted for pot.
Pity. It was Cepeda's 1975 conviction on marijuana smuggling charges (he did ten months in prison) that kept him out of the Hall in his early years of eligibility. It was probably forgetfulness and apathy that kept him out in 1994--despite a rigorous PR campaign on his behalf by the Giants, for whom Cepeda still works as a "community representative" among inner-city kids.
Say it ain't so. The man who played with bad knees for ten seasons, who hit a league-leading 46 dingers and batted in a club-record 142 runs in 1961, deserved to take his place this summer alongside teammate Willie Mays.
Meanwhile, inductee Lefty Carlton probably would have thought twice before throwing Cha-cha one of his patented hard sliders. Cepeda would probably slam it into oblivion. Where his accomplishments now reside.
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