No athlete arrived in Calgary with a higher profile than East German figure skater Katarina Witt. Four years earlier she had not just won the women’s individual gold, but had earned global attention and celebrity.
Since then, Witt had added the 1985 and 1987 world titles to establish herself as the pre-eminent female figure skater in the world. In fact, in the four years between the 1984 and 1988 Winter Games, she had been beaten only once, by the American Debi Thomas, who pipped her to the1986 world title.
Thomas and Witt cut contrasting figures. The American was a student who was preparing to go to medical school and she lacked the global celebrity of her German rival. But the two did have something in common: their choice of music. By a remarkable coincidence, both skaters had decided to skate to the music from Bizet’s opera Carmen in their free programmes.
The stage seemed set for a classic battle – feted champion against the student challenger, and it was duly billed as “The Battle of the Carmens”. However, it was the Soviet skater Kira Ivanova who established an early lead after the compulsory section, with Thomas second, and Witt lying third.
It was in the short programme that the two favourites truly started to flex their skating muscles. Witt scored highest, with Thomas second and Ivanova down in seventh. It seemed certain that the two favourites would now go head to head for gold in the free programme.
The first to deliver her interpretation of Carmen was Witt, who produced a beautiful performance, full of character and emotion. But it was slightly lacking in adventure so while the reigning champion earned high marks for artistic impression she could not match them for technical performance. Could Thomas take advantage?
First she had to look on as Canada’s Elizabeth Manley, who was third after the short programme, stepped onto the ice to deliver her free programme. Inspired by the home crowd, she produced a superb display that earned her high marks and put her into contention for a silver medal.
Now it was all down to Thomas. Perform at her best and she could take gold, but unfortunately she couldn’t rise to the occasion. She fell on her first jump and as a result her confidence deserted her. She missed with two more jumps and also put her hand down on the ice at one point. In the end she slipped out of silver medal spot and had to content herself with a bronze medal, as Witt retained her title, ahead of Manley
Witt took part in the next Winter Games in Albertville, finishing seventh, and then retired from competition. She went on to tour on the professional circuit. Meanwhile Thomas went on to become a surgeon.