Skaters throw picks in the soup


PHILADELPHIA -- You've got a subjectively judged sport. You've got a controversial selection process. And now you've got a major sponsor announcing its own "Dream Team" two days before the start of the pseudo-Olympic qualifier.

A Don King production?

Nope, the 1998 U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

It's dangerous enough that Olympic berths are decided on the whims of judges. And now Campbell's Soup is weighing in with its opinion -- 140 million times over.

That's right, no matter what happens in the long program tomorrow night, Michelle Kwan, Tara Lipinski and Nicole Bobek are coming soon to a supermarket near you.

Tonia Kwiatkowski?

She's not appearing on any soup cans, except maybe Cream of Betrayed. Yet, she's third after yesterday's short program -- one place ahead of Teary Tara, who botched her triple flip, tsk, tsk.

Not to worry -- Lipinski can fall six more times tomorrow night and still make the Olympic team. This isn't a competition; it's an exhibition. With a top ticket price of $75. And ABC breathlessly describing the drama of it all.

Only the first-place male and female finishers are guaranteed Olympic spots. Kwan received such high scores for her gorgeous performance yesterday, the judges made sure there will be no unwanted intruder on the gold-medal stand.

The question now is whether Kwiatkowski would make the team if she caught the second-place Bobek. The long program comprises two-thirds of each skater's score. But the United States Figure Skating Association is the ultimate judge. And 37 of its esteemed members basically pick the teams.

Bobek, a veteran at 20, is a volatile performer who could help the U.S. sweep all three medals. Kwiatkowski, an antique at 26, is slower and duller. Her medal possibilities would be slim. She's not ready for prime time, not worthy of a soup can.

So, Tonia, how does it feel to be mmm, mmm, over looked?

"When I saw that, I said, 'Oh well, whatever, maybe I can mess things up enough that they'll have to change it,' " Kwiatkowski said.

Mess things up?

Who does Kwiatkowski think she is, the other Tonya?

"This is our campaign," Campbell's spokesman Kevin Lowery said. "We would not change it."

Campbell's is skating's longest-running sponsor, and probably its biggest contributor. Lipinski, Kwan and Bobek are the three most recent U.S. champions. Lowery said they were chosen because of their name recognition.

"This is not at all a campaign about who's going to the next level," Lowery said. "This is a way to help personify our interest in creating awareness about U.S. figure skating."

Fair enough, but why not kick off the campaign after the U.S. championships, to avoid the appearance of impropriety?

It's a question the USFSA should have asked.

"The timing was not great," said Kwiatkowski's coach, Carol Heiss Jenkins, a former Olympic silver (1956) and gold (1960) medalist.

Lowery retorted with the usual corporate spin, insisting, "we love Tonia Kwiatkowski as well." Just as predictably, USFSA president Morry Stillwell jumped to his organization's defense.

"I don't know what the world sees, but it sure doesn't affect the judging," Stillwell said. "No judge here has less than 25 years experience. If you think a soup company is going to alter their opinion, you have the wrong thing."

Of course, none of this would be an issue in a sport with objective measures (read: no judges). Nor would it be an issue in a sport in which the national championships were actual Olympic trials, as is the case in track and field.

Remember Dan and Dave? Reebok built an advertising campaign around the two decathletes before the 1992 Olympics. But Dan O'Brien didn't make the team after botching the pole vault, and no amount of politicking could change it.

That system is purer, but it isn't necessarily fairer. O'Brien was the best decathlete in the world then. Lipinski -- the 1997 U.S. and world champion -- is probably the best skater in the world now.

Not even Kwiatkowski's coach is comfortable with the idea of Lipinski's staying home if she finishes fourth.

"You're talking about someone who won three of the top championships and fell on one jump tonight," Heiss Jenkins said. "Is it fair to be competely out of it when you've made one mistake?

"I know I've got Tonia. But if Tonia were in that position, how could you do that to Tonia? One mistake? There's still a former skater in me. I have difficulties with that."

Asked their opinions, Kwiatkowski and Bobek looked at each other, started giggling, then burst out laughing. Bobek pointed to Kwiatkowski, signaling her to answer.

"Thanks," Kwiatkowski said, smiling.

Then she gave it her best shot.

"I think there are a lot of deserving people here that could represent the United States at the Olympics and do a really good job," Kwiatkowski said. "That's what's exciting about it. We'll have a good show [tomorrow]."

Kwiatkowski paused.

"Very diplomatic," she said.

Heiss Jenkins smiled and applauded. Then it was Bobek's turn to address the possibility of getting bumped, and she made her feelings clear.

"The audience wouldn't agree with it," she said. "They see on TV. Whoever places should be sent."

The bottom line is, it's Kwiatkowski vs. Bobek for the final spot. Campbell's should have been more canny. Here's to Tonia ruining everyone's soup.

Pub Date: 1/09/98

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