Skip to main content
Original Issue

A dazzling display of Witt

East Germany's Katarina Witt was a cut above the rest at the worlds in Japan

It may have been an omen when coach John Nicks, on the day before the final event of last week's World Figure Skating Championships in Tokyo, spoke these words about Tiffany Chin, his 17-year-old pupil and America's latest skating queen (SI, Feb. 4): "She never seems to be able to get into an ugly position. It's all very beautiful. Even if she falls, she will get up gracefully." The next day, Saturday, near the end of her long freestyle program, Chin sat for one brief, stunning moment on the backside of her pretty pink costume. She had fallen. Up she jumped, as swiftly—and gracefully—as if it hadn't happened, but the gold medal that had seemed so possible the day before now was out of reach.

Not that Chin had come to Tokyo as the favorite for the women's title. That role belonged to East Germany's Katarina Witt, 19, the 1984 Olympic and world champion. But Chin had done surprisingly well in the first event of the competition, the school figures, finishing second to the Soviet Union's Kira Ivanova, 21, the bronze medalist at Sarajevo, with Witt in third. All three skated a strong short program on Thursday, though Chin received the loudest applause. Japan's star, Midori Ito, had withdrawn because of an ankle injury, so the Japanese fans took the Chinese-American skater to their collective bosom. Witt won the short program, but the point difference among the leaders was so small that the overall standings remained the same—Ivanova, Chin, Witt—prompting Tiffany's mother, Marjorie, to say, "It's as if they hadn't skated at all."

So it came down to Saturday's free program. Ivanova, the first to compete, played it safe and skated a competent, if uninspired, program. Then Witt appeared, dressed in the same burgundy costume she had worn in Sarajevo. Her coach, Jutta Müller, was asked why the G.D.R. hadn't sprung for a new outfit. "Believe me, we have the money for a new dress," said the offended Frau Muller. "But we have wonderful memories of Sarajevo."

Witt, skating to the music of Gershwin, landed each of her four triples perfectly, never breaking the smooth flow of her moves. It was a golden performance, a hard—perhaps impossible—act to follow. When Chin, who skated next and last, took to the ice, the confident Witt did what most skaters would never do: She stood at the barrier and watched Tiffany skate. She may have put a spell on America's hopes.

Chin made it through two triples, but when it came to her third triple jump, it turned into a single. Then she fell on her last jump, a double axel. When the judges' scores were all in, Witt had won, Ivanova was second and Chin third. Asked if she was disappointed with her bronze medal, Chin said, "I'm more disappointed with what I did in that last minute."

Witt is the latest in a long string of champions Müller has produced. (The coach's previous Olympic champion, Anett Pötzsch, who won at Lake Placid, is married to Katarina's brother, Axel.) The world champion, a high school student, lives with her parents in KarlMarx-Stadt, where her father, Manfred, is a director in a cooperative that produces plants and seeds, and her mother, Käthe, works as a physical therapist. When Katarina was five, she would stray off during walks with her kindergarten class and peer into an ice arena. Finally, her mother agreed to let her take skating lessons. When Katarina was 10, Muller recruited her for her famous training program, a great honor. And when she was only 11, she landed her first triple, a salchow. As an incentive, Müller had promised her 20 marks for her piggy bank if she succeeded.

Müller is a small, stern-looking woman of 56 who demands great discipline from her students. Few complain. In the past 17 years her skaters have won 48 medals in world, Olympic and European competition, a record unmatched by any other skating coach in the world. Because the parents of Eastern European skaters do not travel with their children, Müller acts as coach-mother-chaperone while on the road. At Tokyo she could be found braiding Witt's hair before a performance, chewing out her star pupil after a mediocre showing in the school figures and weeping with joy when Witt finally won the gold medal. Witt's parents seldom watch her practice and, because of travel restrictions, have seen their daughter compete in person only once in a major international event, at the 1984 European championships in Budapest. There are no skating mothers in the G.D.R. "In capitalist countries," says Witt, "the parents pay a lot of money, so they want to have something to say. In my country, skating is free, so my parents come to watch only once in a while."

Capitalist countries and paying parents did not have a good week in Tokyo. The Soviets dominated all the other major titles, winning gold and silver in both the pairs and ice dancing, and even winning the men's singles, to the shock of Canada's Brian Orser, the favorite. Orser had finished second in the '84 Olympics and world championships behind the U.S.'s Scott Hamilton, and with Scotty gone to the Ice Capades, Orser was the heir apparent. But he hadn't counted on an impish little Russian, Alexandr Fadeev, 21, a Muscovite who finished ninth in Sarajevo but third at last year's worlds. Fadeev won the school figures—Orser came in a creditable fourth—but the Canadian planned to clean up in the freestyle. In the short program, Orser, wearing a black suit with tiger stripes, put on a smooth performance to music from Cats, earning 5.7s and 5.8s from the judges. His leaps were high and his strokes catlike, but he didn't set the Yoyogi National Stadium on fire.

Then Fadeev appeared in a peasant blouse, looking like a country boy dressed up for the fair. He leaped and whirled to fast-paced Russian folk dances, displaying dazzling footwork as he dashed across the ice. The crowd went wild: the judges gave Fadeev six 5.9s, and he retained first place, though Orser had moved up to third.

"Fadeev is technically good," sniffed Orser after the short program, "but I don't think he's much of an entertainer. He lacks in style."

Said Butch Orser, Brian's father, "If you prefer break dancing to the sophisticated interpretation of the music from Cats, then that's your choice."

"I see he is very nervous," said Fadeev of his Canadian rival. "Why, if he's so sure to win, is he so nervous?"

Orser had reason to be nervous. In the long program Fadeev immediately served up his best stuff: a difficult triple lutz and a triple toe-loop combination, followed by a triple axel and a double toe loop. He landed seven triples in all, six perfectly, and won six 5.9s from the judges. Orser laid on a triple lutz and double toe-loop combination, followed by a triple axel. But then he scaled down a couple of triple jumps and dropped one altogether. He was awarded four 5.9s. The man who would be champion had to settle for the silver. The U.S.'s Brian Boitano won the bronze.

And how did little Fadeev celebrate his stunning upset victory? "Oh, don't remind me," the Soviet champ winced the next day. "I drank too much beer at doping control."



Witt sported a new dress for the short program (left), a more familiar one for the long.



A mishap on her last jump of the competition upended Chin's hopes for a gold medal.