CALGARY, Alberta — I am about to confess something that will make the women of the Western World sleep easier tonight. I once sat with Katarina Witt, alone, for an hour, and did not ask her to marry me. Take a breath. I know that’s a shocker. Based on what you’ve been reading and what you’ve being seeing, you are likely to believe that any male who comes within 20 feet of Witt, the East German ice princess, is immediately ready to scale the Berlin Wall — barefoot, if she so desires.
Not quite. Witt might be, as they say in skating circles, enchanting. But they say that a lot in skating circles. What I remember most about her — and this was four years ago, during an interview in Budapest, where, at age 18, she was competing for the European Figure Skating Championships — was this:
She spoke perfect English, even then, and with no bodyguards around she was eager to use it. (By the way, I don’t know how we escaped the East German guards that afternoon. Even Witt’s omnipresent coach, Jutta Muller, was missing. That’s how much of a threat I was, I suppose.)
Anyhow, we talked about skating, about travel, a little about America. Once, in the middle of a sentence, she stopped, made a face, then grabbed her pocketbook. She pulled out an English dictionary, flipped through its pages and found a word. As I recall, it was a big word, like “parsimonious,” and she smiled when she said it, happy she had gotten what she’d wanted.
Which is pretty much the way Katarina Witt (pronounced VITT) operates today. Set sights, go after it, get it. She will win the Olympic gold medal Saturday night. I have little doubt about that. She has won it before (1984). She’s the defending world champion. And in figure skating (which is more like the Oscars than the Olympics), your reputation skates out there with you.
And then, of course, there’s the G-string.
Ha! Got your attention, didn’t we?
Relax. It’s not really a G-string. That’s just what a Canadian coach called the costume Witt will wear for her short program tonight. “It’s cut up to here!” skating people gush. “It’s cut down to there!” skating people gush.
If there’s one thing skating people do well, it’s gush.
With Witt, though, the habit seems to be contagious. An Associated Press story Tuesday, written by someone named Lisa Ryckman, actually began with the following: “What is Katarina made of? Sequins and spins and power and poise, that’s what Katarina is made of. Talent and timing and triples and toe loops, that’s what Katarina is made of. . . . Lips and hips and thighs and eyes, that, too, is what Katarina is made of.”
Geez, Lisa. Where did you go to journalism school? Camelot? Why don’t we put a chocolate mold around Witt and sell her on Valentine’s Day?
Enough. Everybody calm down. Take a cold shower. It’s just skating. There’s a nightclub here in Calgary where women dance in nothing but Jell-O. Tell me when that’s on TV, OK?
Besides, the skimpy costume will not make Witt the champion. Nor will her mock flirtation with the judges. Contrary to popular criticism, Witt can skate. Debi Thomas, the fiery American challenger, might be more athletic than Witt, but she’s more athletic than almost everybody.
“Whoever has the strongest nerves here has the greatest chance to win,” Witt says.
She says it calmly.
When I first put on skates I was five years old,” Witt told a packed room of journalists last week. She wore a bright- colored sweater and red lipstick, her hair tied back in a bun. “There was water around the edges, so my mother said, ‘Skate in the middle. Otherwise you’ll get your panty hose all wet.’
“Maybe that’s how I learned to skate.”
The journalists laughed. It’s a good story. But it’s far from the whole truth. In East Germany, kids are plucked for sport before they can tie their shoes. Special schools accept the most athletically gifted, and the child often lives there for eight to 10 years. Any expense to produce a champion is readily absorbed by the government.
Katarina Witt is of that system, by that system, and for that system. At age nine, she was accepted by Muller, the top coach for young skaters. Training was intense. Four hours a day on ice. Eight more at school. Her parents shifted into the background. (They often do when an East German child excels at sports.) Muller and the ice became her constant companions.
“But I would never have been able to become a skater in a capitalist system,” Witt says. “My parents would not have been able to afford it. . . . In (East Germany) we are all given the same right to sport.”
Nice try. But Thomas, her American rival, does not come from a well-to-do family, either. There were times when Janice Thomas, divorced for the last 13 years, could barely make ends meet for her daughter.
She found a way. Witt found a way. What is funny is that, between the two skaters, it is the one from behind the Iron Curtain who is accused of coming out to the beat of “Let Me Entertain You.” And Witt, like the most popular flirt in high school, seems to enjoy all the commotion over her femininity.
“Do you think it’s fair,” someone asks, “that you need to be pretty to succeed at figure skating?”
“Well,” she says, “I think this is just part of the sport. Every man prefers looking at a well-built woman to looking at someone who is shaped like a rubber ball.”
True. Except maybe Larry Bird.
But why all the fuss? Why all the brouhaha over Witt’s spangles, her modeling offers, her unsolicited marriage proposals, or her upcoming long program, in which she seductively skates the title role to “Carmen,” Bizet’s opera about a Spanish prostitute? (Which Thomas, by coincidence, will also use.)
Why? Galoshes. That’s what I figure. Witt doesn’t wear galoshes, or burlap coats, or bulky brown sweaters or scarves over her head — none of the packaging the Western world has long associated with Eastern Bloc women. If she were French, Witt’s glamor would be a matter of fact. But because she comes from East Germany, the reaction is a double take. “They have women that look like that?” people seem to say.
Well. Yes. They have a few. Witt is one. And the East Germans go to great lengths to promote it. Unlike most of her countrywomen, “Kati” (as she is called) is adorned in the latest Western clothes and makeup, she has her own apartment and her own car (things the everyday East German must wait for 10 to 12 years.) There was even a report here she is negotiating with the Ice Capades. Although never done before, it would not be a shock if her country took advantage of that marketing tool. Tell the world there are attractive people behind that wall. “Serve the State,” the saying goes. Even if the rest of the State is locked in.
But first, this Olympic competition, which is really a two- woman affair. Witt is already in good position, third after Wednesday’s compulsory figures
(traditionally her worst segment). Thomas, an excellent compulsory skater, is second. They should dominate the rest of the way.
“We are not really friends,” Witt admitted. They two have battled several times for the world championship (Witt has three, Thomas one), and their showdown here will likely be rife with the classic East-West overtones. Deep down, Thomas, 20, knows who is favored. “I’m on the cover of Time magazine,” she says, “but the story is about me being the underdog.”
No one writes about how many strangers ask to marry Thomas.
Image counts. And what we have in Katarina Witt, 22, is an attractive, jazzy ice skater from a dank and depressing country, who has a winning smile, an eye-popping costume and a seductive way of interpreting her music. If the judges go for it — and they will — she will have her second Olympic gold medal by the weekend. She is largely an illusion, as much fluff as substance. But hey. This is figure skating. That stuff counts.
And so be it. Just as I remember that first interview four years ago, I also remember the next time I saw Witt, at the Sarajevo Olympics. She was surrounded by East German officials, and she spoke only German, and she did not acknowledge me at all.
Personally, I like the fact that Debi Thomas wants to be a doctor, drives a Toyota, has a boyfriend, and calls her sport “flaky.” Gold in hand, the world at her feet, sooner or later Katarina Witt will have to go home to East Germany, for whom she is really working. That, as one who has been there, is a cold shower I can do without.