Stars on Ice

Snubbed: Browning had a song in his heart

Source: Calgary Herald
Date: March 20, 1996
Author: Cam Cole

To settle a grudge, or to make a political point, or perhaps to protect all those pristine amateur skaters -- who are making $ 937,500 US here this week -- from the taint of professionalism, Ottavio Cinquanta pounded his fist on the table and said: "Kurt Browning will not skate here."

Bully for you, Ottavio The Good.

We all feel a lot safer with you around.

You didn't quite ruin what might have been one of the most emotional moments in Edmonton's sporting history -- Browning skating to Michael Burgess's haunting signature piece from Les Miserables, Bring Him Home, might have left everyone in the place weeping -- but you tried.

The opening ceremonies of the 1996 world figure skating championships Tuesday were saved because the four-time world champion flew across the continent anyway, waved to the crowd and gamely sang the national anthem with Burgess -- and because a gutsy 16-year-old kid named Ben Ferreira swallowed the lump in his throat and skated the Browning part without so much as a false step.

But you owe us, Mr. Cinquanta. You owe us a lot more of an explanation than "a rule is a rule" for why, two days before a show that was two years in the planning, you had to embarrass the volunteer organizing committee by removing their star.

"We worked two years on this, Pam Chen and I, and she's in tears," said Edmonton lawyer Jim Wheatley. "It's Kurt's piece. His signature. There wouldn't have been a dry eye in the house."

Wheatley's own eyes weren't dry. Everyone from these parts who ever watched Browning skate with Edmonton tattooed on his behind formed an emotional attachment to him. These are the worlds Browning built. He deserved Tuesday night. He belonged on that ice.

"It's darned hard to take," said Browning's dad, Dewey. "I find it hard to cope with. Hard to understand. Why does this guy have to play God?"

But Kurt Browning is "ineligible" -- the International Skating Union's euphemism for "not one of ours." ISU Rule 128.5 (b) states: "During a World or European championship, no exhibition by an ineligible skater may be held in the same rink."

Tracy Wilson and Rob McCall skated in the 1990 Worlds ceremonies in Halifax, as pros. Cinquanta would respond that he wasn't president then.

But he was president just over six weeks ago. That's when Ludmila Belousova and Oleg Protopopov, four-time world pairs champions, longtime ineligible professionals now nearing pensionable age, skated in the opening ceremonies of the European championships, an ISU event. So why pretend it's a hard-and-fast rule, at the cost of angering 16,000 fans? For what?

The answer is about eight layers deep.

It has to do with animosity between Cinquanta and Canadian Figure Skating Association director general David Dore over who really owns the Champions Series, that big-money circuit of events which culminated in last month's final in Paris. Cinquanta, insiders say, has successfully fought off a palace coup, and this is his way of publicly slapping Dore down.

Cinquanta said the first he heard about Browning skating in the opening ceremonies was when he arrived in Edmonton on Saturday. Organizers say the ISU was informed last April that Browning was to be in the ceremonies.

"I'm very disappointed," Browning said. "When I found out I wasn't skating, I didn't know quite know how to take it. But it shouldn't be a blemish on the world championships at all. I don't want it to be. It's going to be a great week, and I don't want it to start off this way."

"Personally, I don't understand the rule," said Browning's agent, Kevin Albrecht. "I understand an ineligible skater can't compete at world championships, but to do an exhibition for the fans -- I don't understand that. They're drawing a very hard line."

Kristi Yamaguchi, who also was supposed to skate here in the closing ceremonies with Browning, now won't be coming at all.

"It would have been fantastic," Browning said of his cancelled skate. "Michael Burgess is a very good friend of mine, Edmonton is my home. It would have been a memorable skate." It was not a moment some popgun general should have been allowed to steal.

GRAPHIC: Colour Photo: Larry Wong, Edmonton Journal / Alberta's four-time world skating champion, Kurt Browning, waves gamely to a crowd of 16,000 in Edmonton Tuesday night after singing the national anthem. An International Skating Union official barred Browning, a professional, from skating in the opening ceremonies of the World Figure Skating Championships, so the Caroline native sang instead.