BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer
PHILADELPHIA - Tonia Kwiatkowski comes prepared for politics. She has been skating long enough to understand the perils of subjective judging and the contrary nature of committees.
Elite figure skaters must master diplomacy if they are to succeed on the international scene, and Kwiatkowski has enough delicacy for an embassy job in Baghdad.
But the soup cans are something else. When Campbell's unveiled its skating ''Dream Team'' this week - and stuck their faces on the labels of 140 million cans - the company neglected to wait for the members to make the Olympic team.
In honoring Michelle Kwan, Tara Lipinski and Nicole Bobek, Campbell's overlooked the possibility that Kwiatkowski might bump one of them off the plane to the Olympics in Nagano. They may have jumped the gun with the wrong girl.
''Hopefully,'' Kwiatkowski said Thursday afternoon, ''I can skate very well and they'll have to change them.''
The U.S. Figure Skating Championships are not to be confused with Olympic trials, for only the first-place finishers will automatically qualify for the Winter Games. The other slots on the American team are determined by vote. The guidelines are vague, and the potential for conflict is acute.
Never more so than now.
Just one spot left
The results of Thursday's ladies short program may not prompt an immediate recall by Campbell's, but it had to leave the marketing deparment with faces the tint of cream of tomato. Kwan justified Campbell's faith with an elegant effort - scoring seven perfect 6.0s for artistic presentation - and Bobek was a solid second. But Kwiatkowski is in third place with one round remaining because Lipinski, the reigning world and national champion, fell on her, er, can.
Lipinski is bound to emerge from this broth with a place on the U.S. team. She has been too dominant for too long to be displaced by one botched triple flip. The Olympics without her would be like alphabet soup without vowels.
Yet her startling stumble, its irrelevance to her Olympic plans, and the unfortunate Campbell's campaign has created the perception that the U.S. Championships are a mere formality. While career achievement may be the most reliable means of identifying medals contenders, it runs contrary to the American ideal of the level ice rink.
Because Lipinski and Kwan are both recent world champions, the rest of the women's field is essentially competing for one place on the U.S. team. This is not a problem so long as Lipinski and Kwan perform to their usual standards, but matters could get messy under other scenarios.
Coach stays objective
''I think it's going to come down to how they skate,'' said Carol Heiss Jenkins, Kwiatkowski's coach. ''What if all four girls skate top-notch and it (the standings) doesn't move? That's would be interesting. If they don't skate well, that would be even tougher.''
Heiss Jenkins, the 1960 Olympic gold medalist, is unusually objective for a skating coach. Her loyalty to Kwiatkowski is balanced by an appreciation of the difficulty of their craft. Though Bobek was quick to endorse choosing the Olympic team based on performance at these championships, Heiss Jenkins was reluctant to advocate her own self-interest.
''What we've got here (in Lipinski) is somebody who won three of the top championships who fell on one jump today,'' Heiss Jenkins said. ''Is this fair? Is it fair to be completely out of it when you've dominated for a whole year? I'd have a hard time with that. I know I've got Tonia, but the former skater in me, I'd have difficulty with that.''
Until 1993, the U.S. Figure Skating Association assigned weights to specific competitions so that the Olympic criteria would be clear and objective. USFSA President Morry Stillwell said Thursday that approach was no longer efficient because of the proliferation of skating events.
He was adamant that Campbell's marketing campaign would not sway the voters.
''I didn't know it had happened until someone started asking me about it,'' Stillwell said. ''Fortunately, we don't have to eat soup.''
Eldredge wins; Kwan leadsfrom Associated Press