"When I started out, she was very nice, and I admired her greatly," said Hultén, 82, last week from her home in White Bear Lake, Minn., a suburb of the Twin Cities. "But when I started to challenge her by finishing second in the 1933 world championships, she turned on me."
Hultén said that Henie's father, Wilhelm, made deals with judges that tilted the ice against Hultén, specifically at the 1936 Olympics and at the '35 and '36 world championships. Hultén finished third, while Henie was first, in all three competitions. Could jealousy be behind Hultén's claims?
"Look, I have great admiration for what Henie did," says Hultén, who runs The Skating Academy in St. Paul. "On the ice she was terrific, a wonderful acrobat, just like a circus princess, a big smile, dressed perfectly, But she was Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a very nasty person off the ice. She treated people with her hand stretched out, like, What can you do for me? I'm just telling it like it is."
Telling it like it is might have cost her a trip to Lillehammer as a figure skating commentator for NRK, the Norwegian television network. Shortly after Hultén roasted Henie in the Minneapolis Star Tribune a few weeks ago, an NRK executive canceled an invitation that had been extended in early November. The letter cited difficulties with securing her a ticket but also scolded her for having criticized the Norwegian legend.
"It would've been nice to be there, but I'll watch on TV," said Hultén. "My favorite is the little girl from Ukraine, Oksana Baiul. She makes skating both an artistic dance and an athletic exhibition. Sonja only did the athletic part. No one wants to hear that, but it's the truth."
Isolated cameras, instant replay, computer graphics and telestrator-assisted commentary. Sounds like some network is preparing for a football game. Guess again. It's 21st-century chess.
"This is going to be anything but the dry, static game that people expect." says Bob Rice, commissioner of the fledgling Professional Chess Association (PCA), which is negotiating to sell its high-tech format to television. Televised chess? Shuffleboard seems like Melrose Place when compared with chess. But the PCA's series of four Grand Prix tournaments this year—beginning in Moscow next month, followed by stops in New York, London and Paris—will feature a speed-chess format, with each player having a total of only 25 minutes to complete his moves. There will also be innovations like electronic boards and Hashing pieces ("viewer-friendly" wrinkles, according to Rice) and, predictably, a voluble, hyper-informative commentator, in this case U.S. master Maurice Ashley, "the John Madden of chess," as Rice calls him.
The PCA is optimistic that American television will buy all or part of the tour. And the plan is not as far-fetched as it seems, given that the PCA has already secured the sponsorship of computer giant Intel, which has committed more than $5 million over the next two years. What's more, consider the boffo ratings that a British television network drew when it devoted 60 hours of programming to last fall's Gary Kasparov-Nigel Short match in London. There's every possibility that a new breed of player could thrive in a glitzy atmosphere far removed from the mausoleumlike conditions of traditional chess, and that a new audience might arise from among the Beavis & Butt-head set.
"People have this idea that you have to be supersmart and educated to enjoy chess," says Rice. "That's bogus. I'm just a normal guy, and I love this game."