Bobek: An ex-skater on thin ice

Ex-Olympians sometimes slip

The Associated PressJuly 15, 2009 

Nicole Bobek's face was splashed across newspapers and TV screens from London to Los Angeles, the figure skater's latest doings making her tabloid fodder once again.

It hardly mattered the former U.S. champion hadn't competed in a decade, or that she was a relative bit player in the Michelle Kwan era. Fifteen years after Tonya Harding and the Whack Heard 'Round the World, her arrest last week was a reminder that ice princesses can find trouble just as easily as any other athlete.

"Figure skating, especially for women, is so much about femininity," said Karen Sternheimer, a sociologist at the University of Southern California. "You're judged on grace and beauty. You wear a dress in competition, and makeup.

"When they commit crimes or challenge our expectations, they also challenge our expectations of hyper-femininity."

Bobek has been accused of being a "significant player" in a New Jersey drug ring. The 31-year-old former U.S. champion was charged with conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine, and faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted.

She is free on bail, with the case now moving to a grand jury.

Deep down, of course, fans know skaters aren't perfect. Figure skating, after all, is a sport that can make "The Young and the Restless" look prim with its cattiness, breakups and whining about judges.

But the hair, the expertly done makeup, the gorgeous costumes, the fact a skater's very success depends on the illusion of making a grueling sport seem effortless -- it all contributes to a glamorous, idealized image.

"I think we have a rather sophisticated aura," said Kathy Casey, a longtime coach who worked with Bobek for four years. "We don't have so many of us, and we've been very successful on the world and Olympic scene, and our skaters are very well-known."

Fans often feel they have a personal connection with the skaters, too. In most other sports, athletes are part of a team or, if it's an individual sport, compete head to head against someone else.

In skating, the athletes are on their own, and their choice of music and costumes create a feeling for fans that they have a sense of the performer's off-the-ice persona. Throw in those schmaltzy up-close-and-personal features that are as much a part of NBC's Olympic coverage as the rings, and fans sometimes think they truly know the skaters.

"Our sport is a very revealing sport as to who you are," said Peggy Fleming, the 1968 Olympic champion. "You are judged on the music you select, the costume you wear, how you wear your hair, how you speak at interviews, the choreography that you do, whether you're slim or fat. All these things come into play.

"To be able to handle all those situations, there's not too many other sports that judge you quite so under the microscope."

For the most part, skaters live up to those expectations.

Fleming and fellow gold medalist Scott Hamilton both went public with their battles with cancer to help raise awareness. Sarah Hughes just graduated from Yale, and Kwan has a budding career as a diplomat. Kimmie Meissner has worked with a program that helps children undergoing treatment for cancer.

That, though, makes the exceptions all the more glaring.

Harding was a cigarette-smoking, tough-talking girl from the wrong side of the tracks, figure skating's bad girl long before then-husband Jeff Gillooly helped plan an assault on rival Nancy Kerrigan.

Bobek had a wild streak to match her boundless talent. She liked to have fun, wasn't much for practice, had a run-in with the law as a teenager and got the nickname "Brass Knuckles" for all the rings she wore.

Three years after winning the gold medal at the Lillehammer Games, Oksana Baiul was charged with drunken driving and reckless driving after a high-speed car crash. Christopher Bowman, the 1989 and '92 U.S. men's champion, died last year of a drug overdose and an enlarged heart.

"I think when Olympians get in trouble, it is definitely perceived differently," said Jerry Solomon, a longtime agent who is married to Kerrigan. "I think part of that is because they're sort of looked upon as the property, for lack of a better term, of the American public."

While most skaters make the transition between their competitive careers and the rest of their lives just fine, many said they can understand how some don't. Most skaters start so young they can barely remember a time they weren't on the ice. Those with ambitions of the Olympics or world championships often sacrifice "normal" teenage activities, trading parties and after-school activities for training and travel.

Yet skaters' competitive careers are usually done by the time other folks their age are finishing college. There's a whole lifetime still ahead of them, and they have to find something that will give them that same rush, that same sense of achievement they had as an athlete.

"I think there's a lot of problems with athletes like that, they can't find something else that can fill that void that they've focused on for so many years," Fleming said.

"The Olympics is a big responsibility," she added. "Some people carry that image well, and some fall off."

If they do, the public will be shocked and disappointed.

And utterly riveted.

"This doesn't make people think, 'Wow, all figure skaters end up being drug dealers.' Because that's not a realistic portrayal," said Michal Ann Strahilevitz, an associate professor of marketing at Golden Gate University.

"What I think it does is make you realize nobody's exempt from major pressure and possibly really bad deeds and bad people," she said. "No sport is exempt from it."

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