Even if Harding is cleared, image may doom chances

January 19, 1994|By ALICE STEINBACH

They were both back on the ice this week, America's two women Olympic figure skaters, practicing for the first time since the advent of the Kerrigan-Harding saga.

There on the East Coast was Nancy Kerrigan -- whose elegant style has drawn comparison with Katharine Hepburn -- managing to complete a half axel. And there on the West Coast was Tonya Harding -- who has compared herself to basketball's bad boy, Charles Barkley -- landing a perfect triple axel.

Both back on the ice.

But the question now is: Will they both stay on the ice? The Olympic ice, that is.

Or will Tonya Harding, who is voluntarily meeting today with the Portland, Ore., district attorney, be removed from the team by the U.S. Olympic Committee -- even if there continue to be no charges brought against her in the Jan. 6 assault on Nancy Kerrigan?

Since the arrest of three men connected to her ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly -- whose possible role in the attack is being investigated -- Harding has "categorically" denied accusations that she participated in or knew of the assault on rival Nancy Kerrigan.

But guilt or innocence may not be the issue here. Unless it's guilt by association. Image may be what it's all about.

When it comes to the tony world of figure skating, let's face it, Tonya Harding is no Nancy Kerrigan. She likes to play pool with a cigarette dangling from her lips and isn't shy about expressing her ambition.

Sure, both Nancy and Tonya come from blue-collar families. But appearance and demeanor, it seems, can help make up for that "shortcoming" in the eyes of the figure skating world.

Or as one unnamed U.S. skating official recently told The Washington Post: "Nancy's not from a high-class background, but she's a lovely lady. She was raised as a lady. We all notice that."

The Olympic Committee has expressed concern that terrible things will happen if Harding goes to Lillehammer. She could be booed. Or cause a "logistical nightmare" that would have a negative effect on other skaters. Or maybe her presence would spook Kerrigan. It doesn't seem to matter that Kerrigan herself said yesterday at a news conference that she didn't think Harding's presence would be a problem.

What the Olympic Committee doesn't express is any regard for how hard Tonya Harding has worked to get to this point in her skating career. Or whether it's fair to penalize her if, in fact, it turns out she played no role in or had no knowledge of the Kerrigan attack.

And it doesn't seem to matter that in this country the "presumption of innocence" is supposed to mean something.

It seems the Olympic Committee just wants to see Harding disappear. Right now. There's even the suggestion that it would be the noble thing to do.

"If she withdrew and was very gracious about it, you'd think she'd be a hero," Margaret Anne Wier, the U.S. judge for the women's Olympic figure skating competition, told The Washington Post.

It's pretty much what respected sports commentator Frank Deford has to say about the Harding affair. "The only way Tonya can rehabilitate her image is to be gracious and step aside," says Deford.

Everyone, it seems, has an opinion. And it seems to be leaning heavily on the side of: Yes, she should be penalized.

The New York Daily News reported on Monday that an overwhelming 92 percent of its readers responding to a phone poll believe Tonya Harding should not be allowed to skate in the Olympics.

And a poll conducted on the same day by TV's "A Current Affair" reported more than 77 percent of its respondents did not want Harding competing at Lillehammer.

But even if she does compete, says Deford, "she's not going to win it now. The judges are going to take care of her."

Which brings us to the darker, less gracious side of the glamorous world of figure skating. And, more important, to the underlying hypocrisy in all this.

Everyone in the world of figure skating knows that the skaters are judged on many elements other than talent and ability. "Ice skating," says Deford, "is notorious for judges basing their decisions on subjective factors. If they like you, for instance. If you're the champion coming into the contest. If the public likes you. And here you've got a situation where 92 percent of the people are against you."

Ice skating, it seems, is not the sweet, lovely, glamorous sport it's cracked up to be. It's down and dirty.

And it's got its own set of rules.

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