The sad news descended on the World Figure Skating Championships in Lausanne, Switzerland, last Thursday like two blows from a hammer. First came word that Scott Hamilton, a four-time winner of the men's title at this event between 1981 and '84, would have to undergo chemotherapy in Cleveland for testicular cancer. The malignancy had already spread into his lower abdomen, but doctors were cautiously optimistic about a full recovery, reporting an 80% success rate in treating that form of the disease.
About eight hours later it was learned that Carlo Fassi, 67, a distinguished name in figure skating, an amusing raconteur and a devoted family man, had died of a massive heart attack in a Lausanne hospital. He had been taken there by ambulance during one of the morning practice sessions, complaining of indigestion and dizziness. A two-time European men's champion and a bronze medalist for Italy in the 1953 world championships, Fassi was best known as the coach of four Olympic gold medalists: Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill, John Curry and Robin Cousins. Fassi and his wife, Christa, had been coaching out of Lake Arrowhead, Calif., for the last few years, and they had two skaters in Lausanne, 19-year-old Nicole Bobek of the U.S., one of the favorites in the women's competition, and 26-year-old Cornel Gheorghe of Romania.
So many of the skaters, coaches and officials attending these championships had been influenced by either Hamilton or Fassi or, more likely, both, that in the span of a few hours a pall was cast over the entire event. It made for a tough three days, yet in other ways they were unforgettable: days exactly like the sport, which for all its emphasis on illusion—making the difficult appear easy, making the ordinary appear glamorous—still reflects the human condition in all its beauty, sadness and grit. The competition was, appropriately, the beginning of the healing process, brilliant skating in unspoken tribute to a great champion and a revered coach.
The splendid singles skating had begun the day before the sobering news arrived. Wednesday's competition produced probably the best collection of men's short programs ever. Eleven triple-triple combinations had been landed, compared with just two a year ago. All four of the top contenders—defending champion Todd Eldredge of the U.S., Alexei Urmanov and Ilia Kulik of Russia, and Canada's Elvis Stojko—had been virtually flawless, a turn of events that did not work in favor of the 25-year-old Stojko, whose artistic marks are almost always lower than those of the other three.
This time was no different: The judges put Urmanov first, Eldredge second, Kulik third and Stojko—a two-time world champion—fourth. The free program, which would account for two thirds of the scoring, still remained, but the fourth-place standing had the Stojko camp fuming. "The face is not so nice," said a Russian choreographer sympathetic to Stojko. "The hair is ugly. The body? Too short, too thick. The music and costumes? So ugly. But the entire package is good. You understand? The package works."
The 5'6", 150-pound Stojko has learned to be something of a minimalist, rare in a sport in which posturing and preening and waving one's arms theatrically toward the rafters is considered art. At his best, which he was in Lausanne, he skates as Hemingway wrote and Brando acted, with understatement and barely concealed passion and power. Is he pretty? No. He cannot arch his back as Urmanov does or skate as fluidly as Eldredge or point a toe as balletically as Kulik. With his short arms and muscular upper body, he looks a little like Mike Tyson mingling with Calvin Klein models. But there is an honesty to Stojko's presentation that appeals to spectators in ways those of other skaters do not.
"It's all related to the O.J. trial," says 1976 Olympic bronze medalist Toller Cranston, a choreographer and artist whose elegant skating style was about as far from Stojko's as one can imagine. "People are sick of bells and whistles and tricks and lies and mirrors. They want it straight. They want all the cards on the table. Elvis does that. He does it his way."
Dressed as some sort of no-frills knight errant and skating to the soundtrack from the movie Dragonheart, Stojko in the first half minute of his long program unleashed the most powerful weapon in his, or any other skater's, arsenal: a quadruple toe loop-triple toe loop combination. He is the only man to have landed this breathtaking jump in competition, having done it for the first time two weeks earlier at the Champions Series final in Hamilton, Ont. Here Stojko made it look easy. One-two-three-four...touch down...one-two-three...touch down. He wasn't a blur. You could count the revolutions. Stojko added seven other triples, including two triple Axels, and then finished with a series of whirling butterflies—the body goes horizontal while the legs go haywire—that brought the spectators out of their seats.
For a while it looked as if Eldredge, skating next, might match Stojko. Eldredge has no quadruple jump in his repertoire—not yet, anyway—but he has become the best spinner among the men, and his first seven triple jumps were perfect. However, in the last minute of his program, with the title still within his reach, he tried too hard on a triple Axel, the same jump he'd missed during the qualifying round. He singled it, and then he fell while making a last-ditch attempt to turn a double Axel into a triple in the closing seconds. "I knew I needed all eight triples to beat him," Eldredge said after finishing second. "I'm disappointed I didn't win, but I'm not disappointed with my performance."
When the 19-year-old Kulik, inconsistent all season, self-destructed, and Urmanov unexpectedly withdrew with a pulled groin muscle he'd injured in practice the day before, Stojko had his third world crown in four years. That's a pretty good record of consistency, and it may be time to recognize this unlikely looking champion as the man to beat in the Nagano Olympics next year.