It was a virtual Tonya-rama. It was a veritable Kerriganza. It was an AMERIKANSK S‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√±PEOPERA, according to Norwegian tabloids, a story so absurd and so appalling that it seemed to single-handedly create a market for...for Norwegian tabloids.
And yet, it was difficult to select the most absurd, the most appalling moment involving the two American figure skaters at the XVII Olympic Winter Games in Gilloolehammer, Norway.
Was it when a Portland, Ore., minister told Tonya Harding before her departure for Norway last week that she was "skating for Christ"? (Absurd.) Or when hostile journalists greeted her at the Games by implying to her face that she was, instead, skatin' for Satan? (Appalling.)
Was it when a member of the Nancy Kerrigan camp suggested, seriously, that Nancy might wear goalie pads to the first practice she would share with Tonya? Or was it when Nancy showed up wearing, instead, the same outfit she wore while being clubbed above the right knee on Jan. 6 in Detroit, an attack planned by Harding's ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, who has sought to implicate Tonya in the scheme.
No, surely the most absurd, the most appalling moment came at Kerrigan's first press conference two weeks ago in Lillehammer, when Mike Moran, the event's moderator and the chief spokes-man for the U.S. Olympic Committee, actually asked her the following question: "How would you handicap the field?"
The world was waiting at gate 34 of Oslo's international airport on the morning of Feb. 16 in the form of a hundred photographers and reporters. At precisely 10:52 a.m., SAS flight 4470 from Copenhagen taxied to the Jetway, and someone yelled in English, "It's showtime!"
Roger, Houston: The Tonya had landed.
In the 24 hours before the plane's touchdown, Harding's attorney denied that his client would pose naked for Playboy: Harding talked about establishing a charitable fund for Special Olympians; A Current Affair aired a tape, which had reportedly been bought from Harding's former husband, of Tonya simultaneously topless and in a wedding dress; and Harding's mother, LaVona Golden, had fainted on the set of The Montel Williams Show.
So naturally, when the Jetway at gate 34 belched out Connie Chung, a man named Anders of Channel 2 in Oslo approached the CBS newswoman and posed the following question: "Why is this story so interesting to Americans?" And that's the way it was all week. No media types would admit to covering this story; they all claimed to be covering the coverage of this story.
Likewise for Olympic participants. The coach of a Korean skater assigned to the same packed-house practice sessions as Harding and Kerrigan would aptly call the nuthouse scene at the figure skating training facility both "sick" and "pathetic" but certainly not interesting.
"It is a shame, of course," fretted another voice of reason, a man renowned for his restraint. "It is a shame these things should happen." In short, this whole Tonya-Nancy business was downright reprehensible if you asked...Alberto Tomba.
But interesting? Nobody would use the word. When Harding escaped reporters by exiting a side door of the SAS jet in Oslo and descended a staircase to the tarmac, she looked up to see scores of faces pressed against the glass inside gate 34, like Garfield dolls in a car window. She gave them her little hand-puppet wave, then climbed into a waiting van and was driven away.
"It's been fun," Harding would later say of life among the media jackals. "It's been interesting."
As a Zamboni resurfaced the ice before Tonya's and Nancy's first practice together last Thursday afternoon, the public-address system at the rink in Hamar played—absurdly, appallingly—Elton John's I'm Still Standing.
The curious had begun to arrive for the 1:30 practice nearly seven hours early. By one o'clock, 400 journalists were assembled in a holding pen overlooking the ice, while Olympic officials filled a bank of bleachers.
You want appalling? Nancy skates to a Neil Diamond medley. You want absurd? Tonya's musical program is called, as God is our witness, Much Ado About Nothing. This, and little more, was learned in the 45-minute practice, during which neither skater spoke to nor made eye contact with the other. Tonya ended the session by landing a rare triple Axel—she is the only skater who planned to attempt the move in the women's competition scheduled for this week—but that was not the subject of discussion as the skaters left the rink.
Instead, this question quickly circulated among scribes in the hog pen: What was the closest the two skaters ever came to touching each other on the ice? Swiftly and inexplicably, the journalists agreed on an answer: 31 inches. The world had a right to know.
At practice on Friday afternoon the hog pen played host to Kerrigan's agent, Jerry Solomon, whose sunglasses were perched on his forehead, agent-style. As Solomon talked with reporters eager to learn more about the Nancy Doll and the Nancy Deal with Disney, the Nancy Coach—a wise man named Evy Scotvold—took in this sight and then began a pantomime. Using an invisible spade, Scotvold started shoveling with both hands.
Later that afternoon Harding held a press conference. But because Dan Jansen was winning a gold medal an hour's drive away, only 1,500 inquiring minds showed up for this "opportunity to chat," as moderator Moran called the rabid-dog-and-pony show. In 10 minutes of wooden acting, officials from the USOC (whom Harding had threatened to sue for $25 million if banned from the Olympic team) lobbed softball questions to her. They "chatted" about figure skating and Norway. Then they opened the floor to queries from the press.
The first inquisitor called Harding a liar. The second wanted to know about the nudie photos, apparently lifted from the wedding-dress video, that screamed from the pages of a London tabloid on Feb. 16. The third question characterized Harding as "virtually friendless." The fourth involved "not-so-nice rumors." But reporters could not hew to this high road for long, and soon the questions turned ugly.
The scheduled hourlong press conference was stopped, like a fight, after only 30 minutes. Harding was hustled out a side door.
The next day a harried journalist from Japan reluctantly entered the Lillehammer office of this magazine, asking for help. Her editor had heard a report that needed checking. Did Tonya Harding really strip during her press conference on Friday?
She did not, our Japanese friend was assured. Visibly relieved, she exited, allowing the Lillehammer office of this magazine to return to its normal business: fielding telephone calls from the press agent representing...Nancy Kerrigan's physical therapist.
After her arrival in Norway, Tonya had much "free" time to spend, in the company of two security guards, at a private house in Hamar. The house was being occupied by Stephanie Quintero, Tonya's best friend. There, TV's Inside Edition taped yet another exclusive interview with Tonya on Saturday. For the privilege of doing this regularly, the program is paying Tonya a reported $600,000.
Of course, Tonya was still sleeping in the athlete's village, one floor above Nancy's quarters, which is why reporters tried to bribe their way into the compound. In one actual scheme an American offered Norwegian security officials 1,100 pounds of lutefisk in exchange for access. But lutefisk—a fish soaked in lye and boiled—is not a delicacy here, it's a vile national joke. Advised Tor Aune, the spokesman for the Lillehammer Olympic Organizing Committee, "You will have to do better than lutefisk."
Speaking of fish: At the Sea Side fish restaurant in Hamar on Friday evening, weary journalists were enjoying a kneecap...nightcap! Weary journalists were enjoying a nightcap, when Nancy entered with her agent. Silence fell, and Nancy became a magnet, pulling everything in the room toward her table.
Waiters arrived with food, though the joint was buffet only. Tourists arrived with autograph requests, though it should be noted that Nancy does not punctuate her signature with a smiley face (Tonya does). The boys from Inside Edition materialized, trolling past the table. But about all they could glean was that Nancy ate something called "rice cream."
Finally, Nancy and her agent summoned a sportswriter to the table. There were things they wanted to know. They were curious. They were interested. And so they asked: What did Tonya have to say today?