Cutting Fancy Figures

February 15, 1994

Fans who wanted to see a showdown between Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding within the larger competition of Olympic ladies figure skating are obliged. The gods of modern Olympus are letting the skater skate and be judged on skating merit. Those who wanted Ms. Harding banned are disappointed. The controversy distracted from the glory earned by U.S. skier Tommy Moe and the pathos of U.S. speed skater Dan Jansen.

The U.S. Olympic Committee backed down from regulating ethics under a menacing lawsuit. It is aware that quarter-miler Butch Reynolds won a $27.3 million judgment against the International Amateur Athletic Federation (for a ban imposed after a faulty drug test). Tonya Harding sued the USOC for almost as much. It settled by relenting before the Olympics, without prejudicing what it might do after.

In other words, this issue affecting the governance of amateur sport was decided by a lawsuit based on possible loss of hypothetical professional earnings after victory in an amateur competition that the plaintiff is not favored to win.

Had the USOC stuck to its word about enforcing ethical standards, it would have opened itself to criticism for arrogance, and to liability. By not doing so, it raises questions whether administrative bodies can regulate standards of conduct at all in such a mercenary, litigious society as ours.

In the original Olympic Games, cheaters risked the wrath of Zeus, an effective disincentive. Today we worship mammon, not Zeus. Women, foreigners, slaves and dishonored persons were kept out. In the modern Games, only the last are banned, and now that is unclear.

Some date the Olympian loss of purity to chariot racing (680 B.C.), whose introduction spawned professionalism and national rivalry.

Tonya Harding "won" the U.S. National Championship unfairly. Her husband-manager arranged the beating that prevented the favorite, Nancy Kerrigan, from competing. He pleaded guilty and implicated her. She denies it and has not been charged.

So, eligibility is decided. After the Olympics are over, the great mass of American spectators can refocus on their true sports, litigation and contracts, undistracted by triple axels and double toe loops that do keep getting in the way.

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