Athletes to go after big money


BIRMINGHAM, England -- At next year's World Figure Skating Championships, competitors won't just be performing for medals they'll be jumping for cash.

Skating's ruling body bowed to the big-money influence washing over the sport yesterday by announcing a string of changes, including awarding prize money, creating a Grand Prix circuit, and expanding the schedule of open competitions matching today's stars against past Olympians.

The moves come after a season of made-for-television events like "Skating Wars," and Fox's "Rock 'N Roll On Ice" received huge ratings in America. The glittery shows remained beyond the control of the International Skating Union.

The new schedule enables the ISU to keep a grip on the sport, while enticing younger skaters to cash in on the road to the 1998 Winter Olympics. With an April deadline fast approaching, young stars such as Ukraine's Oksana Baiul -- the 1994 Olympic champion who spent this season earning money and not medals -- must decide whether to reclaim their eligibility for World and Olympic events.

"The federation can now tell the skater that there is a reason to remain eligible [for World and Olympic competitions]," said Ottavio Cinquanta, president of the International Skating Union.

The number of open competitions pairing skaters who retain their eligibility for World and Olympic events against those who have given up their eligibility has been increased from two to eight for next season. The move paves the way for a current world champions such as Elvis Stojko to skate against Olympic champions Brian Boitano and Scott Hamilton in a string of showdowns sure to be packaged for television.

A Grand Prix circuit with a $2.5 million prize pot open to skaters who retain their eligibility will be carved from existing international competitions in the United States, Canada, France, Germany and Japan. What had been a nice little preseason get-together like Skate America, where winners received $10,000, will be turned into a high-stakes, skate-for-bucks program in which men's and women's skaters will receive $50,000 for first, $25,000 for second and $15,000 for third. Individual events will have to come up with the jackpot for the pairs and dance performers.

The best skaters will then compete in a new event, the Grand Prix Final, which will award $100,000 each to the men's and women's winners. Prize money for pairs and dance is to be determined.

The ISU will also award prize money for all the championships it oversees, including short and long track speed skating.

But just how much those prizes will be worth to figure skaters remains undetermined.

Said Cinquanta: "It can't be peanuts."

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