Even figure skating, sport of grace and purity, can't escape ills of sick society

January 17, 1994|By John Steadman

Reality replaced fantasy. And with it comes a nightmare for the dream world of figure skating. Maybe it was all an illusion that's gone. Robbed. Destroyed. Wiped out.

It's almost tantamount to taking away the innocence of a little girl's childhood, a make-believe time of playing with dolls and enjoying lollypops. Now what's around her is an environment replete with degradation and potential anarchy, where rules are there only to be broken.

Tonya Harding, for the record, earned first place on the U.S. Olympic team but, because of what happened, she's under a cloud of suspicion. No guilt has been assessed but those around her are implicated in a terrible scam, with overtones of what mobsters used to do -- knock off the foremost rival in a business they wanted to control by having an enforcer do physical harm to the principal competition.

The case so far has turned up allegations of "hit men," a supposedly incriminating tape recording, a getaway car, the discarding of a blunt weapon, an agreed payoff for perpetrating an unlawful deed by attacking an innocent victim -- the leading contender, Nancy Kerrigan. All acts associated with the underworld.

There's even a minister disclosing what in some religious faiths would be regarded a confidential confession. He went public with the information.

This brought the FBI and various police agencies into the investigation. Now they track the culprits and get some to admit guilt as their troubled consciences rebel.

Nancy was supposed to offer Tonya her strongest competition in the U.S. Figuring Skating Championships held in Detroit. But Nancy was eliminated by a "hit man" who clubbed her across the right knee after a practice session.

The physical damage eliminated her from the event, thus making it easier for Harding to breeze to victory. The Olympic selection committee later voted Kerrigan to the team, which eliminated the second-place skater, 13-year-old Michelle Kwan, a 77-pound blossom, who had a full right to complain but didn't.

To her credit, she accepted the ruling with grace and more understanding than was expected. The key point in the ongoing probe is to determine if Harding knew of the plot to intentionally hurt Kerrigan. If she had such knowledge -- provided it's proven -- then her career is close to being finished.

The U.S. Olympic Committee, if it removes Harding from the team, is going to have to make sure it is on firm legal grounds or it will open itself to momentous retaliatory court action. You just can't deny a championship without having irrefutable evidence of wrongdoing.

A gold medal in the Olympics could translate into millions of future dollars, which was the reason "friends" of Tonya felt compelled to do all in their dirty-handed power to bump Kerrigan out of the event.

Could such tactics be described as a mental sickness, where the wrong priorities have been allowed to interfere with righteousness? Yes, and it occurs in other sports and businesses, too. The genesis of the shock is that figure skating figured to be far removed from tampering and mysterious conspiracies.

Then again, as long as you have amateur goals that can translate into professional gold -- such as careers with ice shows, endorsements and appearance fees -- there will be temptations that will violate all codes of ethics, sportsmanship and even human decency.

This insatiable desire to gain an edge, to win at almost any cost, often becomes a haunting obsession. It's unfortunate but apparently this is what transpired within the mentality of some of those identified with Harding. To point out how wide-spread such conduct might be in society, let's cite two other examples of how wildly bizarre it can get.

Remember the father who was caught trying to "fix" a former Soap Box Derby in an attempt to win a college scholarship for his son? What's more pure than the Soap Box Derby? After that incident, only a certain brand of soap.

And for something even more incredulous, an attempt was once made to dye a white Charolais steer black and enter it as an Angus at a National Western Stock Show held in Denver. But the judges became skeptical of its size and the ruse was discovered when the color started to run.

Tonya Harding's support system, straining to virtually guarantee victory, destroyed the declining values of integrity in sports by engaging in a brutal assault that was physically, spiritually and emotionally despicable. Reiterating, sports aren't always as they appear nor do they offer the escape from reality they are supposed to be.

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