Four years ago Kurt Browning, the Canadian who won four world championships between 1989 and '93, was banished from amateur figure skating. Last weekend he got a reprieve of sorts. He was invited to skate against the 1998 Olympic champion, Ilia Kulik of Russia, and beat him if he could.
"I had no idea it was something historic," Browning, 32, said of the Grand Slam of Figure Skating at the North Charleston ( S.C.) Coliseum, the first of 10 "open" competitions to be held this season, pitting traitorous professionals like Browning against establishment amateurs like Kulik, all with the International Skating Union's blessing. The ISU, which determines eligibility, allows a skater to remain eligible for Olympic competition as long as he or she skates only in ISU-sanctioned events. Prize money? No limit. Endorsements? Bring 'em on. Just don't skate in an unsanctioned event.
Ottavio Cinquanta, president of the ISU, said he was driven to try open competition by Oksana Baiul's decision to turn pro at 16, after winning the gold medal at the 1994 Olympics. Like Browning and many others (including 1998 Nagano gold medalist Tara Lipinski) Baiul turned her back on the rigid structure of the ISU's events in favor of made-for-TV spectaculars. Since then, as Cinquanta—and anyone with a remote control—could see, professional skaters have been appearing in so many made-for-TV events of such varying quality that the shows were threatening not only the integrity but also the popularity of the sport.
"Last year ratings were the lowest in 10 years because people were tired of the made-for-TV events," says Eddie Einhorn, TV consultant to the ISU. "For 20 years I've been telling the ISU it's making a big mistake in not dealing with the skater after he or she is done with the Olympics."
By sanctioning 10 events this year, and allowing amateurs to skate alongside pros, Cinquanta hopes he has found a way to hold on to both TV ratings and skaters for future Olympics. Last season there were 10 unsanctioned events on American TV; this season there will be two. "We are investing to be sure that there aren't ineligible skaters in the future," Cinquanta said.
In Charleston, the women's winner was Michelle Kwan, the 18-year-old Nagano silver medalist who hopes to return for the 2002 Games. "This is a wonderful format," said Kwan, who collected $40,000 for beating professional Yuka Sato in a semifinal round, then Maria Butyrskaya, who is likely to be one of Kwan's main rivals in Salt Lake City, in a one-on-one final. As for Browning, he was beaten in the semis by Kulik, who then lost to Todd Eldredge. Could this be a first step toward reinstatement for Browning and others? "No," Cinquanta said. "You cannot leave then come back tomorrow."
Still, after the competition ended, Cinquanta approached Browning. He held out his hand. "Bravo," said Cinquanta. "You are a great champion. We are proud of you."