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Throwback: Witt and Thomas and the Battle of the Carmens in Canada

Portrait of Katarina Witt of East Germany on 1 December 1988 in London, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Simon Bruty/Getty Images)

Feb 27th, 1988

The contest for the Olympic Winter Games women’s figure skating title at Calgary 1988 was billed as the Battle of the Carmens.

On one side was Katarina Witt, the East German star who had dominated the sport since winning gold at the previous Games. Facing her was the USA’s Debi Thomas, the first black figure skater widely regarded as being world class, and the only woman to have beaten Witt since the Olympic Winter Games Sarajevo 1984.

When winning the European Championships earlier in the year, Witt had again danced as Carmen, the Spanish gypsy immortalised in Bizet’s opera. “I can relate to her – I like to be playful, I like to flirt,” she said.

But to add extra spice to this occasion, Thomas had surprisingly chosen to dance as Carmen too, which was unprecedented. Following the short routine, Witt led the competition, with Thomas in second and Canada’s Elizabeth Manley in third. The stage was set for a titanic battle and the arena was packed.

“Physically I was dead, I was exhausted.”

Katrina Witt

Witt danced first, wearing the same red and black outfit she had chosen at the European Championships, her hair scraped back and dark makeup shadowing brown eyes.

The announcer in the Saddledome called her name, then there was silence and “a thousand thoughts went at once through my head.”

In the first section she nailed three difficult jumps, before stopping to pose and “flirt with the audience, flirt with the judges.” A dramatic routine finished with Witt dropping to the ice in apparent anguish, pretending to have been stabbed.

“Physically I was dead, I was exhausted,” she said.

The dance was arresting, but not as accomplished as you one have expected from Witt. “Provocative and glitzy but short on technique,” was how one journalist from the New York Times put it.

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This was Thomas’s chance to usurp her illustrious rival on the biggest stage. As she stepped out onto the ice she looked tense though, and her fans’ worst fears were realised when she missed her first triple jump, then the next: a disaster.

The routine was so poor that Thomas dropped to bronze, with Manley claiming silver behind Witt.

On the podium, the American refused to even look at her rival, let alone acknowledge her, drawing fierce criticism from around the world. For the The East German there was sporting immortality. She was the first woman since Sonja Henie in 1936 to have retained the Olympic women’s figure skating title.


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