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Repeat of skating gold not easy

Sonja Henie is remembered for two things in Olympic figure skating: being the youngest athlete to win an individual gold medal, and winning the gold medal more than once.

The second achievement is more impressive.A new women's figure skating champion was crowned Thursday in Japan, the 13th in the 14 Winter Games since Henie's third and last Olympic title in the 1936 Garmisch-Partenkirchen Games.

No sport favors order and orderly succession the way figure skating does, yet few sports have treated their champions more cruelly: Get your Olympic medal and get out.

The U.S. Olympic champions - Tenley Albright (1956), Carol Heiss (1960), Peggy Fleming (1968), Dorothy Hamill (1976) and Kristi Yamaguchi (1992) - all collected their gold medals and signed their first ice show contracts almost before "home of the brave" had faded from the arena.

But Thursday's winner could face an entirely different scenario. This Olympic championship could be the first in somebody's string of titles, which could raise the stature of a skater from mere champion to greatness.

"Things are so much different now than when I skated," Yamaguchi said earlier this year. "I'm glad I won my gold medal when I did."

Yamaguchi endured competition more than she enjoyed it. When she won her medal at age 21, she had a unique opportunity to "turn pro," as it was then called, sample the show business lifestyle and then reinstate her Olympic eligibility in time for the Lillehammer Olympics two years later.

She declined to come back.

The women now at the top of skating's hierarchy, with the exception of 25-year-old Russian Maria Butyrskaya, are younger than Yamaguchi was when she won her gold medal.

The two U.S. skaters, Michelle Kwan, 17, and Tara Lipinski, 15, both say they thrive on the kind of pressure that Yamaguchi found disagreeable. Each is already a cottage industry, supporting coaches, choreographers and agents with their million-dollar incomes.

When amateur rules governed the Olympics, the International Skating Union (ISU) groomed a new set of stars for each four-year cycle, then sent them to the Ice Capades where they could earn money to pay off years of accumulated bills.

It's no coincidence that after Dick Button won his second and last Olympic title at the 1952 Oslo Games, the only figure skaters to win more than one Olympic gold medal came from communist countries that put athletes on the state payroll and refused them permission to graduate to ice shows.

The ground rules in skating were just beginning to change when Yamaguchi won in Albertville. Kevin Albrecht of IMG, the giant agency that represents athletes in nearly every sport, was already working informally with the Yamaguchi family that season. Money that Yamaguchi earned from appearances and endorsements was deposited into a trust fund maintained by the U.S. Figure Skating Association, which would reimburse her when she submitted bills for airline tickets and boot laces.