Surya And The Dragon Lady: France's Skating Soap Opera

ALBERTVILLE, France - Somewhere in here is a story of figure skating, not so much as sport but as soap opera, a story less concerned with the Winter Olympics than with birdseed and M&Ms, Zen and the Dragon Lady, an apoplectic coach and a meddlesome stage mother, race and ecology and a ponytail that went uncut for 17 years.

Surya Bonaly is, at 18, the only black skater other than America's Debi Thomas to attract the international spotlight and the first Frenchwoman ever to win the European championship, which she did in stunning, acrobatic fashion last February in Sofia, Bulgaria.

As a baby, Surya was adopted by Georges and Suzanne Bonaly. The couple has since moved from Nice to Paris, where he is an architect and she is a physical-education teacher. She is also the ultimate stage mother, and has made enemies in every camp from the French press to her daughter's own coach.

French reporters refer to Suzanne Bonaly as the Dragon Lady. She is forever grabbing the microphone at news conferences and answering questions meant for her daughter. At skating events, she stands in an area off the ice reserved for coaches, which is unheard of for parents and which infuriates Surya's coach, Didier Gailhaguet.

In the fall, when Surya went to skate for a month in the United States, her mother did the coaching and Gailhaguet was left behind. At a recent pre-Olympic event here, word spread that an exasperated Gailhaguet had resigned. Not yet, he said, but it was not out of the question.

"With the Olympics in France, she is putting a lot of pressure on her kid," Gailhaguet said. "Sometimes too much pressure. It is stupid. It doesn't really help her. It has been a problem the last two years."

What kind of pressure? According to Gailhaguet, Suzanne Bonaly gives her daughter such admonishments as, "Children are starving in Africa, so you have to do well."

"We need not to have the mother in the way," Gailhaguet said.

Suzanne Bonaly does not see herself as intrusive, but as a necessary buffer. After all, her daughter was not 18 until December. Surya is black in a sport where almost everyone else - competitors, coaches, judges - is white. And she, along with world-champion ice dancers Paul and Isabelle Duchesnay, will bear the skating hopes of an entire country in the Winter Olympics next month. That is a heavy load for any athlete to carry, especially a teenager.

"Surya's problems are of concentration, not of pressure," her mother said.

Those who do not like Suzanne Bonaly, and there are many, whisper that she is an ecologist and a disciple of Zen, as if this alone is irrefutable evidence that she is an oddball.

In a materialistic, high-fashion sport where even the Zamboni driver wears a tuxedo, Suzanne Bonaly prefers blue jeans and a face unadorned by makeup. The family follows a diet of no meat or fish. Surya eats birdseed and granola, and cereal without milk.

"We are ecologists, first for the body and then for the environment," Suzanne Bonaly said.

"I prefer to see the animals alive in the fields, not killed," Surya said.

Of course, given to normal teenage independence, she does sneak the occasional Mars bar and pack of M&Ms provided by these Olympic sponors.

"For the publicity," Surya said.

A certain looney-tune music plays in the background of any Suzanne and Surya Bonaly interview. Reporters ask about biorhythms. And Suzanne gives indecipherable answers on such subjects as skating and race: "It's yin and yang. It's important and not important. Very important and unimportant. There is no difference."

When Suzanne Bonaly is asked about her daughter's Olympic chances, her response is: "If she is happy she can do all things easily. But she is not very happy always. Life is difficult. The war in the gulf. We must find solutions."

Lately, though, Suzanne Bonaly has begun paddling toward the mainstream, sensing that her reputation for peculiarity was affecting those who judge her daughter on and off the ice. The past fall, for the first time ever, Surya had her abundant, braided ponytail trimmed.

"I'm not crazy," Suzanne Bonaly said. "People think we are extreme. We are in the middle."

It has been written repeatedly that Surya was born on Reunion, a French territory in the Indian Ocean. This fact of Surya's birth has gone without contradiction from her adoptive parents, who are white. A French publication has even photographed Surya there, on a beach surrounded by coconuts.

But in November, at a pre-Olympic competition here, Suzanne Bonaly told a more imprecise story. Perhaps her daughter was born on Reunion, perhaps not. No one would know for certain, Suzanne said, until Surya turned 18 in December and, by French law, became eligible to learn about her biological parents.

Why the vagueness? Maybe the truth really was unknown. There is another theory, too, that in a sport of rancorous politics and subjective judging where reputation can mean as much as performance, Suzanne Bonaly wants it to appear that her daughter was born on the French mainland.

"When you are adopted, you don't know exactly where you were born," is all that Suzanne Bonaly would say in November.

What is known is that Surya Bonaly is a former tumbling champion who brings the athleticism of a gymnast to her daring skating routines. Though the move is illegal in competition, she can perform a back flip on skates. She is a bold leaper who began performing triple jumps at age 12 and has modeled herself after Japanese star Midori Ito. In the world championships last February, Bonaly either did or did not become the first woman ever to land a quadruple jump in competition. Observers said she two-footed the landing; in any case, she fell to the ice.

"It was almost perfect," Suzanne Bonaly said. "There is only one Bonaly. She is the only one who can do a back flip. No one else in the world can do that."

Bonaly finished fifth in the 1991 world championships. She still lacks the artistic grace and jumping smoothness of those who finished ahead of her - American medalists Kristi Yamaguchi, Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan and Ito, who finished fourth. Even with a home crowd cheering her on, Bonaly is not considered a medal favorite in these Olympics. In 1994, in Lillehammer, Norway, yes. Now, it appears to be too soon.

Especially if the tension between her coach and her mother doesn't subside.

At the Lalique competition in November, Bonaly struggled with her clumsy long program and fell three times. Her mother and her coach, Gailhaguet, stood side by side as the routine began. As Surya began to fall, Gailhaguet began to inch away from the mother. By the end of the routine, the two were standing 10 feet apart.

"She skated bad, her mother is not happy," Gailhaguet said later. "This is going to go on all night long."