Everyone prefaces their remarks about Bonaly by saying she's a sweet, hardworking kid. Then the haymakers start whistling in: She lacks artistic refinement. She's a sore loser. History will forget her unless she wins the worlds or Olympics. She and her omnipresent mother flub the big things (the '92 Olympics, for instance, and their refusal to enlist a full-time coach after that), and they evince godawful taste in hairstyling, costumes, music and choreography. Plus, they don't play the game by kowtowing to judges and skating officials—or, as French TV skating analyst Paul Peret puts it, by "making smiles when there are no smiles inside you."
Yet few of the shortfalls are seen as Surya's fault. Within the skating community Surya is seen as the victim of her domineering mother, Suzanne, a phys-ed teacher who dabbles in Taoism and Zen. She has near-total control of her daughter's training, which she moved to a remote resort in the French Alps after their disaster in Albertville. Suzanne insists on being intimately involved in Surya's career despite criticism that she's about as helpful as a set of leg irons.
In the last year the Bonalys' relations with the French skating federation became so strained that the federation shopped Surya to six coaches, five of whom said they would be happy to take her if Suzanne stayed out of the rink. The Bonalys say they were never consulted about any of this. When Surya decided to bolt for a quick payday on the pro tour—reasoning that she could apply for 1998 Olympic reinstatement as Baiul plans to do—French officials countered with a warning: go now and we won't support your application to come back. She didn't turn pro.
"It cost Surya about $800,000," her agent, Michael Rosenberg, says.
What's so bad about Suzanne Bonaly? Carlo Fassi, the coach who guided Peggy Fleming and Dorothy Hamill to Olympic gold, grins and replies, "You remember what Newt Gingrich's mother said about Hillary Clinton, don't you?"
"It's a scandal," says French team director Didier Gailhaguet, Bonaly's first coach, who worked with her for nine years. "I have seen [Suzanne] yell. Miss the program, she slaps her. Hits her in the face with hockey sticks."
Hockey sticks? Surya, sitting on a bed in her hotel room in Dortmund, breaks into high-pealed laughter when told of Gailhaguet's charges. Then she translates the allegation into French and giggles again as her mother gasps, "No, no.... Oh, no. You're joking!"
Sitting forward, her eyes wide and imploring now, Suzanne says, "This is not true, this is not true!' "
Even in figure skating, a sport in which reputations are routinely taken on the equivalent of a Mafia limo ride, Gailhaguet's remarks were extraordinary, coming as they did at the halfway mark of the European ladies' competition, coming from a man who should be willing to do anything to ensure Bonaly's success. But how seriously do the allegations deserve to be taken? Gailhaguet, later in the same conversation, volunteered that he knowingly fabricated many details of Surya's upbringing after she burst onto the world scene in 1990. Also, no one seconds Gailhaguet's claims about Suzanne Bonaly hitting her daughter—not Carroll, not Fassi, who once shared a California training center with the Bonalys for three months, and not French national team skaters Philippe Candeloro and Stephane Bernardis. "It is not true," Bernardis says.
And yet in the strange, fanciful, sometimes murky tale of Surya Bonaly's life, anything seems possible at any time....