Harding's rights spinning away WINTER OLYMPICS

February 06, 1994|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Sun Staff Writer

LILLEHAMMER, Norway -- Tonya Harding has rights.

The right to an attorney.

The right to a fair hearing.

And the right to skate at the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway.

But it is apparent that the U.S. Olympic Committee is setting the stage to toss her overboard between now and the Feb. 21 draw for the women's figure skating event.

Yesterday, the U.S. Figure Skating Association found that there were "reasonable grounds" to believe Harding was involved in the knee-bashing of Nancy Kerrigan. The USFSA thus handed off to the USOC, which can decide Harding's fate.

The USOC waffled yesterday, saying it would "consider" holding a hearing within the next two weeks. After such a hearing, the USOC could boot her off the team even if she hasn't been charged with a crime.

All along, though, this story has not just been about fair play and the rule of law -- it has been about public relations.

Sports, particularly Olympic sports, are made of heroes and great moments.

To see Kerrigan sprawled on a carpet, screaming, "Why me?" does not fit the Olympic ideal.

Neither does the entourage that apparently surrounded Harding.

The bodyguard with the fantasy resume.

The alleged hit man and wheelman, two guys who liked to set booby-traps and play war in the woods outside Portland.

The ex-husband whose occupation was selling Tonya Harding T-shirts.

Jeff Gillooly pleaded guilty to a charge of racketeering Tuesday and implicated his former wife in both the plot to injure Kerrigan and the subsequent cover-up.

But Harding has not been charged.

In a strange way, though, before all this, before Detroit, before the Jan. 6 clubbing, Harding was a great Olympic story, a great American story.

She overcame poverty, abuse and asthma.

She skated with her own style and her own outfits, tough and tenacious, and yes, even a little bit tacky, she was nobody's vision of an ice queen.

And she made herself into a champion, winning her second U.S. title in Detroit.

Now, it's gone.

All of it.

There will be no ice shows, no endorsement deals, and no more gold medals for Harding.

Kerrigan has 50 movie offers on the table and performed in a prime-time CBS special last night.

What does Harding have?

A one-way ticket back to the mall.

When she appeared Jan. 27 in Portland, Ore., to read her four-minute statement of contrition, she looked like a kid standing in front of the school principal.

She was so small, she even had to climb on a chair to be seen by the 20 cameras and dozens of reporters in the audience.

Her hands shook. Her voice wavered. Her eyes shimmered with tears.

But she wouldn't cry.

Harding admitted to knowing of the plot to attack Kerrigan -- after the fact.

She apologized to her rival.

She asked for forgiveness.

Twenty years of figure skating has taught Harding a lot about performing in public.

"I have devoted my entire life to one objective: winning an Olympic gold medal for my country," she said. "This is my last chance. I ask only for your understanding and the opportunity to represent my country with the best figure skating performance of my life."

The USOC may not be so understanding.

By admitting she knew of the plot 10 days before being summoned by authorities, she apparently sealed her Olympic fate.

If she is dumped, she can take her case to the American Arbitration Association. With enough cash, clout, courage, she could even try an end-around in the judicial system.

The whole legal maze is as tricky as a triple axel.

Harding is responsible for a lot of things.

She brought the entourage into the sport.

She didn't go straight to authorities when she learned of the plot.

She didn't come forward quickly enough to the public to explain her version of the events.

And she did not live up to the Olympic ideal of fair play.

The easy, graceful way out would be for Harding to step aside, to let 13-year-old Michelle Kwan, the Olympic alternate, take her place in Lillehammer.

But Harding has never done things with charm or grace.

Remember: This is her last chance.

If she is eventually charged and found guilty, Olympic authorities can always take away any medal she has won.

But nobody can give her a second chance if she is innocent and still prevented from skating.

Besides, figure skating will retain all its purity, anyway. In a sport that sometimes makes boxing seem ethical, the judges are not going to let Harding win this gold medal.

Surya Bonaly of France and Oksana Baiul of Ukraine are the favorites, now. Kerrigan's chances to win are clouded with uncertainty.

Harding, as always, is just the underdog.

She has done wrong.

But she has rights.

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