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Pros: Accent on art is taking the schmaltz out of skating

The moment Elvis left the building _ and simultaneously brought down the house _ Paul Wylie knew the world of Olympic figure skating had just seen the future. And it was here.

Setting new standards in the quest to combine style and substance, Canadian Elvis Strojko's karate-inspired program in the men's finals scored high marks with fans and fellow skaters, even if Alexei Urmanov's safer, more classical performance secured the gold medal.

"I really enjoyed Elvis' program because I felt like I was seeing something that had Elvis' signature on it," said Wylie, the 1992 Olympic silver medalist in Albertville, who was in Lillehammer as a CBS analyst and performs tonight at the ThunderDome as part of the Discover Card Stars on Ice tour. "Elvis speaks from a different voice, from the voice of a (karate) black belt, but it was his own voice.

"I think we will see more and more people focused on more individualistic performances. Although clean and classical won the game, I think it feels better to the athlete to put themselves into their programs. The (judges) will never accept style over substance, but there's more room for artistic impression."

In the women's final, the pattern established in the men's competition seemingly reversed itself, as judges rewarded the more vibrant, stylistic performance of the Ukraine's Oksana Baiul over Nancy Kerrigan's classical program.

"With the emergence of professional skating in the past 10 years, it's more artistic than ever and more expressive than ever," said Stars on Ice performer Rosalynn Sumners, the 1984 Olympic silver medalist.

"I think the amateurs see that and think, "That's what I'm going to be doing some day,' so they're trying to come as close to that as they can at the amateur level. They're expressing themselves more."

Record TV ratings. The first-ever cycle of having the Winter Olympics just two years apart. And a real-life drama that transfixed a nation for nearly two months. Has the ice ever been hotter in the once-elitist world of figure skating?

The likely benefactors of all this attention, say Wylie and Sumners, are the ever-burgeoning professional skating tours, which are open on a limited basis to amateurs. In its eighth year, Stars on Ice features Olympic gold medalists Kristi Yamaguchi (1992) and Scott Hamilton (1984). Next month at the ThunderDome, Kerrigan, Baiul, Brian Boitano, Strojko, Scott Davis and Surya Bonaly will headline the 1994 Tour of World Figure Skating Champions _ a virtual Olympic encore performance.

"I think the professional side of the skating world is what's going to keep expanding," Wylie said. "Right now literally every major name in the sport is retiring from amateur status to become professional. They're all pros now, and that's what we've needed, people able to make a living from the sport.

"People want to see the top names in figure skating performing together. They don't want to see Mickey and Snoopy on skates. They want something that resembles what's on TV."

On the surface, stars such as Sumners would seem to have missed the dawn of skating's big-money days, a golden era in a sport that has traditionally enriched only its top stars. But the 30-year-old Seattle resident is still cashing in a marketplace that has more demand for big-name skaters than supply.

"Ten years ago, as an amateur, I remember looking at some of the professional competitions that Dorothy Hamill was doing and rolling my eyes," Sumners said. "It was like, "Oh, brother.' It was so silly. You didn't want to turn professional and go downhill. It was schmaltzy. It wasn't attractive to be a professional back then. You knew you had to do it, but you weren't an amateur to get to a professional career. Now, skaters are trying to get those medals to get to that professional career, because that's where skating is so huge.

"I'm proud of the fact that I actually was one of the pioneers that got professional skating where it is now. I sort of feel like I was maybe the Chris Evert or the Billie Jean King of skating Scott Hamilton, myself, Kitty and Peter Carruthers, we were the ones who did that."

Stars on Ice

What: Discover Card Stars on Ice 1993-94 tour, a 30-city tour featuring 13 World and Olympic champion figure skaters with eight Olympic medals represented.

When: 7:30 tonight.

Where: ThunderDome, St. Petersburg.

Who: 1992 Olympic medalists Kristi Yamaguchi (gold) and Paul Wylie (silver) and 1984 gold medal winner Scott Hamilton headline the 13-skater show. According to Stars on Ice press agent Lynn Plage, Hamilton is scheduled to perform despite the death of his father Friday. Other Olympic stars include 1984 and 1988 silver medalist Brian Orser, 1984 silver medalist Rosalynn Sumners, 1984 Olympic pairs silver medalists Kitty and Peter Carruthers and 1992 Olympic silver medalists Elena Bechke and Denis Petrov.

Tickets: $35 and $22.50, plus service charge, on sale at the ThunderDome box office and all Ticketmaster locations. All seats reserved. One dollar from every ticket purchased with a Discover Card will go to the Make-A-Wish Foundation. To charge by phone, call (813) 287-8844 or 898-2100.