The Tabloid Games

February 12, 1994

The irony of the XVIIth Winter Olympiad that opens in Lillehammer, Norway, tonight is that these winter games were moved up a couple of years so as not to have to compete for attention in the same year with the Summer Olympics.

Of course, that was before Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding became household names. (Has there ever been a plot that produced such unintended results? The attack on Ms. Kerrigan, with the intent of elevating Ms. Harding, has, in fact, made Ms. Kerrigan a white-hot commodity even if she does not medal in Lillehammer, while Ms. Harding's career potential is nil even if she does.)

The switch of focus from the Games to the crime has been unfortunate.

Instead of awaiting the return of Dan Jansen, "the heartbreak kid" who captured our affections six years ago when he attempted to race as his sister was dying of cancer, we fixate on whether U.S. Olympic officials will ban Ms. Harding.

Instead of anticipating the repeat performances of a veritable "dream team" of former gold medalists -- figure skaters Brian Boitano, Katarina Witt, Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean, speed skater Bonnie Blair, ski racer Alberto Tomba -- we watch film of Ms. Harding shopping at the mall, of Ms. Harding avoiding a parking ticket, of Ms. Harding running from the paparazzi.

Instead of learning more about long shot Kristen Talbot, the U.S. speed skater who donated bone marrow to her sick brother for an operation at Johns Hopkins a month ago, we dissect the psyche of Ms. Harding's ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly.

We're not naive enough to tut-tut Olympian distractions. Quite the contrary. And typically the games' sideshows mirror their era, whether Cold War-inspired political boycotts and jingoism, blood doping in a generation of drug abuse, or arguments about the inclusion of a basketball player with AIDS. So too has the run-up to this Olympics been a reflection of the times: the Tabloid Games.

But this we also know from past games: Once the athletes parade, nation by nation, into the stadium tonight, and the five-ring flag is unfurled and the torch spits a pillar of flame, the coming two weeks of competition at the highest levels known to sport will enwrap us, excite us and mold memorable heroes from obscure competitors now as unrecognizable to us as two American figure skaters once were.

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