Skating squabble plays to soap opera background


International intrigue, congressional intervention, lost friendships, behind-the-scenes back-stabbing. Sounds right off the set of "All My Children," right?

Wrong, but only if you haven't been paying attention to all the drama that has come to figure skating these days.

For instance, the only things missing from the tale Jimmy Roberts will tell from the United States Figure Skating Championships Saturday during ABC's "Wide World of Sports" (Channel 2, 4:30 p.m.) are "Erica Kane," organ music and the dangling Friday plot twist that makes you tune in on Monday.

"You'll think this can't be true. This is like a soap opera. Who could make this up?" said Roberts.

Here's the story, Reader's Digest style:

Ice dancers Renee Roca and Gorsha Sur form one internationally acclaimed pair. Elizabeth Punsalan and Jerod Swallow are another. Roca and Sur won the national championship in 1993, and Punsalan and Swallow, who are married, won the title and a berth in the Winter Olympics last year.

The four skaters were once friendly when they all trained and lived in Detroit, and Roca and Sur choreographed a routine that helped Punsalan and Swallow win the 1991 championship, but their friendship eventually fell on hard times.

To qualify for last year's Olympics as an American team, Sur, who defected from the Soviet Union in 1990, had to become a naturalized citizen. He and Roca campaigned to expedite the process by hiring lawyers and petitioning members of Congress, but their efforts failed one week before last year's U.S. finals because of miscommunications.

Here's where things get really juicy. It seems that while Sur and Roca were writing to get his citizenship application rushed through, Punsalan and Swallow had their own letter-writing campaign going, designed to slow the process at least long enough so that their former friends couldn't compete in the Olympics.

And this weekend, Punsalan and Swallow admit publicly for the first time to Roberts their role in Sur's efforts to get his application speeded through channels.

"I had sensed that there was something going on. Most of the skaters are friendly or at least cordial," said Roberts, a Maryland graduate. "But there was a coolness there that seemed unusual. Send this to Hollywood."

Or at least to Pine Valley.

Phi Slamma Jamma redux

TBS will have tonight's tearful on-court reunion of former University of Houston teammates Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon, as the two suit up for the Houston Rockets against the Hornets from the Charlotte Coliseum at 8 p.m. Announcers Verne Lundquist and Chuck Daly will have the call as well as hankies for everyone.

Hoop nightmare

Normally, the movies aren't the province of this space, but the omission of the wonderful "Hoop Dreams" from consideration in two major categories in next month's Academy Awards is such a travesty that it can't stand without comment.

"Hoop Dreams," a three-hour masterpiece that followed the lives of two Chicago boys through high school and into their first year of college, was on the best movies of the year list of critics across the country, earning top film honors from both Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, perhaps the nation's most famous film reviewers.

Yet, voters in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences inexplicably left it off not only the list of Best Picture nominees, but Best Documentary as well.

What made "Hoop Dreams" unacceptable to the haughty Oscar electorate? Did the film's length put them to sleep? Did the fact that the film was originally a PBS project that was turned into a film offend their tender sensibilities? Do they want to give an Oscar to a documentary on the mating habits of the Tibetan yak? Who knows?

What we do know is someone in Hollywood really dropped the ball on "Hoop Dreams."

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