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It’s too easy to piss off the zealots who packed USAir Arena Saturday afternoon for the Campbell’s Soup Tour of World Figure Skating Champions to fawn over the likes of Oksana Baiul, Nancy Kerrigan, Victor Petrenko, and Brian Boitano. I offer the slightest insinuation that the object of their amour, this unbelievably popular thing, isn’t a sport, and rage bubbles forth.

“Skating is too a sport! It is too!” vehemes Claudia Moessenger, a college student from Street, Md. “I mean, there’s all the jumping, and the spins.”

Bob Nichols, an Arlingtonian and self-proclaimed Elvis Stojko man, certainly seconds Moessenger’s emotion. “Oh, it’s a sport. Sure. Sure it is,” he nods. “It’s fiendishly difficult!”

Yeah, well, so’s math, but neither Nichols nor anybody else in Landover wants to hear that. Sport or no, skating has gone over the top; it now draws more U.S. television viewers than any athletic endeavor other than football, and tours like the one sponsored by the soup company are making a killing at the box office. Moessenger and Nichols are but two of the thousands of extraordinarily fervent fans who queue up outside the arena hours before any double-Axels or triple-Salchows or doughnut-on-a-sticks are attempted. They were drawn by the promoter’s promise that early arrivals would have a chance to buy the best seats for a skating event scheduled for…next December.

Nichols flaunted his own competitive spirit Saturday by showing up earliest and taking a place at the head of the line. It’s not the first time he’s gone out of his way to get close to skaters. Last year, for example, he paid local up-and-comer Michael Weiss for a private ice skating lesson.

“And the only reason I ever got an American Express Gold Card was because I heard that they saved the best tickets for the skating shows for card holders,” he boasts. “But that didn’t turn out to be the case. I’ve still got the card, though.”

Nichols’ dreams of procuring rinkside seats for December’s show would also prove futile, though he gave a sporting effort. When the USAir Arena doors open, he exhibits the kind of grace that makes Dick Button weep as he directs the mad pack on a harrowing charge from the parking lot to the ticket windows inside the venue. As he and his companions look over the ducats they’ve been sold, however, there’s no thrill of victory.

“Row U? How’d we get Row U? That’s the best tickets they’ve got? For the first in line? No way!” he mutters as he walks toward his seats for today’s event. “It didn’t help showing up so early. The promoters are keeping the best tickets. They must be.”

His whining recalls the priceless anti–Mickey Mouse rant Nancy Kerrigan uttered under her breath at Disney World when she thought no one was listening. Even purists like Nichols concede Kerrigan is half of the reason skating is churning out superstars. Thugette Tonya Harding, of course, is the other half. If it bothers you that skating is now broadcast almost as often as Saved by the Bell, you can blame Nancy and Tonya.

“That was ‘the whack heard ’round the world,’ ” chuckles Christine Brennan, a Washington Post staffer and sage exploiter of the skating boom. The Tonya-inspired clubbing of Kerrigan on Jan. 6, 1994, “changed everything,” according to Brennan, who took a leave of absence from the Post and delved into the skating world after the incident. The fruit of her nine-month exploration, Inside Edge, was a national best-seller, and Brennan is now a celebrity in skating circles. She signed more autographs at USAir Arena than did many of the performers.

Brennan is back at the Post and on the skating beat (for now, at least—skating’s powers that be, possibly threatened by her notoriety, have asked Brennan’s bosses to take her off). Her stories still appear in the paper’s sports section, just as they did when she covered the Redskins. And that’s as it should be, she contends.

“I used to be one of the chauvinists,” she says after Saturday’s event. “Growing up, I always though that ‘sports’ was a Saturday at Michigan Stadium watching Michigan vs. Ohio State. I see now that I, and a lot of us in the media, were wrong about skating as a sport. It’s got all the qualities of a sport. I mean, when Brian Boitano lands on his knees in the 1994 Olympics in Finland, it’s over for him. He was supposed to win. But he falls in the short program, and in a split second, that’s it. He’s lost!”

OK, but is that enough to call it a sport?

“It is. It is,” she insists. “And he didn’t get a chance to foul off another pitch. He didn’t get second down or third down or fourth down. Sport is about not knowing the outcome. And no matter how things used to be, nowadays in skating you really don’t know the outcome of a major championship. When Rudy Galindo comes out of the scrap heap and wins the U.S. national title, that’s sports!

“People point to the judging, but hey, that’s not just skating. You tell those fans in Kansas City that Don Denkinger didn’t cost them a World Series with a bad call at first base. That’s judging!’’ says Brennan. “And I’m not the first one to point out that you can call holding in every play in football. Those who want to pooh-pooh the whole skating thing fail to look at the fact that judging is just a part of sports.”

A forceful argument for sure, but one that gets overwhelmed by the burly figures in Washington Capitals warmups who saunter past Brennan toward the USAir Arena locker rooms. The Caps will close out the regular season with a game that night against Buffalo.

The final game will be played on the very same ice where Boitano and Galindo, the archetypical sportsmen in Brennan’s eyes, performed just a few hours earlier. Galindo delivered a wide-eyed skate to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” and the preciously phony Boitano cavorted to a sappy Seal single and blew more kisses than the Dating Game host. The presence of the Caps’ players makes me think about how much I’d pay to see Galindo and Boitano take a few cross-checks. Hell, Tonya got banned for life for Nancy’s slashing; in the third period against Buffalo, Peter Bondra gets two minutes in the penalty box for the same offense. Athletes? Nah. The Hanson Brothers, now we’re talkin’ athletes.—Dave McKenna