Once upon a time, long ago, before Tonya Harding and the gang of four became the subjects of a uniquely American whodunit that has dragged an ostensibly refined sport into a gutter of violence, greed and sensationalism...Lillehammer was going to be known as the Year of the Professionals. Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean, the icons of ice dancing and gold medalists in the 1984 Games, were returning to the Olympics. So, too, was two-time gold medalist Katarina Witt, the kitten of Sarajevo, the Carmen of Calgary. Also the charismatic 1988 men's champion, 30-year-old Brian Boitano. It was all set up so perfectly. Norway, homeland of Sonja Henie, that nation's most famous Olympic athlete, would host the most exciting, least predictable figure skating competition ever held.
Now, of course, it is hosting a made-for-TV movie. The 1994 Games, a 16-day extravaganza that begins Feb. 12, are going to be known—in the U.S., anyway—as the Year of the Professional Thugs. The tawdry Harding-Kerrigan affair has proved a more durable story than the Super Bowl, the L.A. earthquake or the Lillehammer Games themselves, which, before the Jan. 6 attack on Nancy Kerrigan at the national championships in Detroit, were about as near and dear to the minds of most Americans as Gambia. Now, thanks to the avalanche of coverage of the Kerrigan assault and speculation that Harding might have been involved, those rumblings you hear from Black Rock, CBS headquarters in New York City, are the sounds of network executives adjusting their Lillehammer ratings estimates upward. Tune in, America, to see Nancy as Snow White and Tonya as the wicked stepmother in a battle to the death refereed by those mirror, mirrors on the wall, Greg Gumbel and Paula Zahn. The rest of the athletes in the Winter Games might as well be the seven dwarfs.
You can bet that at least some CBS execs winced, though, when, last Thursday, Harding came out with a scripted, tearful plea for understanding from the public. That performance alone may just prevent her from competing in the Olympics—though there are miles of administrative wranglings to go through before that could come to pass. In her statement Harding reiterated her claim that she had no prior knowledge of the assault on Kerrigan but allowed that shortly after she returned from Detroit on Jan. 10, she did learn that people around her "may have been involved." (Harding's lawyer, Robert Weaver, later said she had meant to say "were" rather than "may have been" involved.) Harding wasn't specific about which "people" she was referring to, but since she used the plural, it can be assumed—since she was not close to Shane Stant or Derrick Smith, the confessed hit man and the confessed getaway driver in the Kerrigan case, respectively—that Harding was speaking of the two others who'd been arrested: her bodyguard, Shawn Eckardt, who has admitted his involvement in the assault, and her ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, who has been charged in the case and on Monday was reportedly ready to trade a lighter sentence for testimony further implicating Harding in the conspiracy. Gillooly and Eckardt were Harding's employees at the time of the attack, since Gillooly, with whom she was living, called himself her manager. Harding apologized for not reporting her knowledge of who might be involved in the assault to authorities.
The timing of Harding's tearful statement appeared to be self-serving, coming on the heels of the ongoing negotiations between Gillooly and the Portland prosecutors. But if it was meant to be a preemptive strike for sympathy, it might have backfired. In essence, Harding admitted that for the past few days she had been lying. By withholding information from investigators, she was not cooperating fully with authorities, as her lawyers had claimed. Nor could it have been true that "Tonya absolutely believes Jeff is innocent," as her coach, Diane Rawlinson, maintained in a press conference on Jan. 16.
February 7, 1994
Gillooly apparently is ready to say as much. According to a story in Monday's Oregonian, in his plea bargaining sessions with authorities, Gillooly has told them that he and Harding discussed the idea of injuring Kerrigan as early as the week of Dec. 12, after Harding returned from a competition in Japan in which she had finished a disappointing fourth. According to Gillooly, he and Harding concluded that she couldn't get a fair shake with the judges, so they plotted to disable Kerrigan, her principal rival, before the nationals.
Regardless of how the Portland prosecutors proceed, any or all of the above may give the U.S. Figure Skating Association (USFSA) and/or the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) enough ammunition to remove Harding from the Olympic team on the grounds of unethical conduct. Those bodies don't necessarily need proof that Harding has committed a crime to take action against her. If Harding had information that her bodyguard and her ex-husband had disabled another competitor and she failed to act on that information, the principles that supposedly guide all of amateur sport—fair play, integrity and sportsmanship—were seriously violated. Having found out that the women's competition at the U.S. nationals early last month was tainted by people close to her, Harding never said a word to the USFSA and took own her sweet time about telling anybody else.
Following Harding's statement, USOC executive director Harvey Schiller issued a foreboding response, saying the USOC was "deeply concerned with statements made today by Tonya Harding relative to her stated knowledge of the attack on Nancy Kerrigan.... " On Monday, Harding's name was officially entered as a member of the U.S. Olympic team, but substitutions can be made as late as Feb. 21—the day of the draw in the women's competition. USOC officials also said, in a highly unusual move, that the first alternate to the team, 13-year-old Michelle Kwan, might accompany the team to Norway.
The USFSA, meanwhile, was starting its own investigation. Minutes after Harding read her statement, the federation announced it was appointing a five-member panel headed by former USOC president William Hybl "to determine if reasonable grounds exist to warrant a disciplinary hearing concerning Harding's status as a member of the U.S. Figure Skating Association." In addition to studying the ethical implications of Harding's admissions on Thursday, Hybl's panel will look into evidence that USFSA funds meant to underwrite Harding's training and competition expenses might have been used to finance the attack (SI, Jan. 31). If the panel can link the $10,000 check sent to Harding by the USFSA in December to payments allegedly made by Gillooly to Stant and Smith to carry out the assault, that also could be grounds for Harding's dismissal from the Olympic team for violation of the USFSA's code of conduct. In any event, the findings of the panel probably will be passed along to the administrative board of the USOC, which will assume jurisdiction over Harding's status as a team member once the U.S. delegation officially leaves for Lillehammer.
If Harding is charged with criminal conduct in the Kerrigan assault, there's no way the matter could be cleared up in the courts before the Olympics. It's conceivable, of course, that she would suddenly give up her spot on the team for the good of the Olympic movement. Now, that would generate sympathy. The more likely scenario, however, is that she will go out kicking and screaming and will sue the USFSA and the USOC to be reinstated. That possibility loomed larger Monday when Philip Knight, CEO of Nike, pledged $25,000 to help Harding defend herself if booted off the team. The legal maneuverings may well continue up to the Feb. 21 deadline, with lawsuits and criminal proceedings continuing long after the last medal has been won. Like Norway's winter darkness, this is something that won't easily disappear: a dank, oppressive thing overshadowing the torch that is the Olympics.
That such a ruckus should be raised over what is, to most of the world, a third-place act is one of the grim ironies of the whole affair. Neither Kerrigan nor Harding is favored to win a gold in Lillehammer. World champion Oksana Baiul of Ukraine and European champion Surya Bonaly of France—who defeated Baiul last month at the European championships—are most experts' top picks. Kerrigan, fifth in last year's worlds and third in the 1992 Olympics, has a history of falling or freezing under pressure. If she stays on her feet in Lillehammer, she could win; she could also sink as low as, say, sixth. The unpredictable Harding, who hasn't landed her vaunted triple Axel in a major competition since the 1991 nationals, could finish as low as ninth—if she is allowed to compete.
That such a sideshow should steal the limelight from some of the most famous names in the history of figure skating is, well, you know what it is. It is the way things are. And it leaves a cavity of despair for the more uplifting stories that now might never be told. How the returning professionals are waging a three-front battle against their younger opponents, their own age and their own giant shadows. Rich fare, that. Olympian fare: timeless, historic, the kind you roll over in your mind like marbles in the palm and replay time and again. Better than any television movie. The kind of thing we should remember from Lillehammer.
But probably won't. The genuine excitement of following the skating superstars as they try to recapture the glory they won in their youth—Torvill and Dean; Boitano; Witt; the Russian pairs skaters Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov, now married; '92 gold medalist Viktor Petrenko of Ukraine—has been supplanted by '90s-style, prime-time, talk-show titillation.
It doesn't seem like an even trade.