Going for the Wrong Gold

February 08, 1994

Americans' preoccupation with figure-skater Tonya Harding's role (if any) in planning the Jan. 6 attack on competitor Nancy Kerrigan detracts from the Olympic Winter Games. It has fanned anticipation, but the clash of values that will determine whether Ms. Harding skates overshadows the Olympic ideals of excellence, dedication, competition, fairness and brotherhood. The purpose of sport is sport, not courtroom drama.

Outside this country, the main interest centers on who will win. The crime against Ms. Kerrigan and American obsession with it are seen as signs of the levels of violence and greed here. The assault by Shane Stant and the plot to which Jeff Gillooly confessed were intended to gain Ms. Harding the gold medal criminally, not for the honor it confers, but as a means toward lucrative product endorsements. Ms. Harding, in one of her more disarmingly naive press conference responses last month, talked of her vision of dollar signs.

The plot to cheat for Ms. Harding by maiming Ms. Kerrigan was as ill-founded in concept as it was inept in execution. Ms. Kerrigan was not standing between Ms. Harding and an Olympic gold medal. Both were favored to make the U.S. team for the games, where Oksana Baiul of Ukraine and Surya Bonaly of France are favored,with former gold medalist Katarina Witt of Germany a sentimental choice. Ms. Kerrigan and Ms. Harding are wonderful skaters who both have an outside chance.

The U.S. Figure Skating Association has begun procedures that will conclude, after the Olympics, with decisions on Ms. Harding's future in the sport and her retention of the national championship. The U.S. Olympic Committee's Games Administrative Board will decide the U.S. entry in Lillehammer, Norway, beyond the reach of U.S. courts. Its officials are in an unenviable position. They must let a woman skate who may be guilty of planning the crime, or ban a woman who may be innocent. They must risk letting a cheater skate, or ban a great skater for non-skating reasons.

While all this goes on, Ms. Kerrigan and Ms. Harding earn admiration for concentrating on their training despite the distractions. The legal and ethical quandary of the USOC should not obfuscate the Olympic ideal. In this sport, at this level, winning is more a matter of overcoming one's limitations than of beating a rival. In the Olympics, it's the gold medal that counts, and not the gold that comes after.

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