Skating Gains an Edge From Tonya, Nancy

NEW YORK -- For decades, a heavy schedule for a figure skater meant four events, perhaps five in an Olympic year. In the new world wrought by Tonya vs. Nancy and soaring television ratings, Brian Boitano will compete in six events before he even begins touring in his ice show.

And Boitano will not even be the busiest competitor. Kurt Browning, Viktor Petrenko and Paul Wylie all have more events on their schedules.

Suddenly, figure skating has taken on the look of tennis, with competitions springing up throughout the United States, Europe and Asia for big purses. And with lots of television coverage.

"This is a natural progression of the sport,'' said 1984 Olympic champion Scott Hamilton, who will skate in a few events when he is not doing analysis for CBS. "It all stems from the popularity our sport has gained. We've never had this kind of support.''

The dividing line between amateurs and professionals virtually has been erased.

The Olympics were the first sign of that, with the remaining amateurs sweeping the individual medals. Now, with corporate sponsorship and television backing, the big-name pros such as Boitano, Petrenko, Kristi Yamaguchi and Katarina Witt do not need the Olympic seal of approval.

"This is the next step for skating,'' said Browning, the four-time world champion from Canada. "You'll probably see even more competitions each year, leading up to the next Olympics.''

Thanks, greatly, to the last Olympics, of course. The Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan saga drew incredible ratings for CBS. The women's technical program and women's final at Lillehamer rank as the fourth and sixth most-watched television programs of all time.

"It's important that we take advantage of this popularity,'' Browning said. "The more skating events with top names, the more accepted those competitions will become.''

So Browning will be all over the place, from Long Island to Massachusetts to Ontario to Landover, Maryland, for the World Professional Championships, one of the few established pro skating events. Wylie, Boitano, Yamaguchi, Witt, current world champion Yuka Sato and most of the top pairs and ice dancers will be just as busy.

"Don't forget that we're all in tours and shows, too,'' adds Hamilton, whose Stars On Ice tour, with strong financial backing from Discover Card, has Witt, Yamaguchi, Wylie, Browning, and two-time Olympic pairs champions Gordeeva and Grinkov. "We're going to be skating fools.''