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Stars take the money and don't skate

US Olympians are skipping this week's World Championships for new and lucrative opportunities off the ice.

Evan Lysacek of the United States performs in the exhibition at the end the 2009 ISU World Figure Skating Championships on March 29, 2009. (Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

BOSTON — When 18-year-old Dick Button won the figure-skating gold medal at the 1948 Olympics in St. Moritz, it was a historic victory in many ways. Button not only defeated the reigning world champion, Switzerland’s Hans Gerschwiler, on Swiss ice, but he became the first U.S. figure skater to capture Olympic gold, the youngest man ever to win and the first to perform a double axel in competition.

After such a monumental performance, Button might have been forgiven if he just went home and rested up for his freshman year at Harvard. But Button dutifully moved on to the world championships, where he struck gold again. Four years later, Button reprised the act, successfully defending his Olympic title — the last man to do so — and then winning his fifth and final world championship.

Over the next four decades, that was pretty much de rigueur for America’s skating greats. The U.S. boasted nine Olympic champions, eight of whom proceeded to compete at world championships the following month. But as worlds get underway this week in Turin, that path is no longer the chosen one. While three of four Olympic champions — China’s Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo in pairs, Canadian ice dancers Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir and queen Kim Yu-na — will grace the Italian ice, there will be one conspicuous absentee: Olympic men’s champion Evan Lysacek.

In skipping the world championship, the 24-year-old American represents the competitive ethos of today’s U.S. stars every bit as much as Button did in his era. Instead of returning to the rink for a grueling month of training in pursuit of one last medal to garnish his resume, Lysacek has been on a whirlwind tour of talk shows and A-list celebrity parties. And rather than skating in Italy, last night he was “dancing with the stars” on ABC. His approach can be summed up succinctly: Take the money and don’t skate.

This trend really began in 1994 when the Tonya vs. Nancy soap opera ratcheted up the popularity of the sport to new heights. That year, for the first time, both the ladies’ and men’s Olympic champions, Oksana Baiul and Alexei Urmanov, stayed home from the world championships. Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding didn’t bother attending either. And why would they? Skating stars — especially Americans and women with global appeal — could all of a sudden contemplate a destiny beyond ice shows. There were new and lucrative opportunities on and off the ice: a spate of made-for-TV competitions (“Ice Wars: North America vs. the World”), the siren call of Hollywood, designer clothing and jewelry lines; autobiographies like “Oksana: My Own Story.”