The competition begins

February 23, 1994|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Sun Staff Writer

HAMAR, Norway -- Today, they skate.

It has been seven weeks since a man wielding a collapsible metal baton smashed the right knee of Nancy Kerrigan. Seven weeks of a story exploding in so many weird ways, from a police blotter to the front page, from an FBI confession to a topless photo in a British tabloid.

And seven weeks of a cloud enveloping Tonya Harding, the American champion whose ex-husband has pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy in the crime.

But today, there will be the simple purity of figure skating, a sport built on grace and beauty and mastery of jumps that take power, strength and guts to complete.

There are 25 other women aiming for the final skating gold medal at the Winter Olympics. There is Oksana Baiul, the lithe ballerina from Ukraine who reigns as a world champion at age 16. There is Surya Bonaly, the tenacious tumbler from France. And there is even Katarina Witt of Germany, the two-time Olympic gold medalist staging the unlikeliest of comebacks.

For much of America, however, this is a powerful story of two women and one crime.

Ever since Kerrigan was attacked in Detroit on Jan. 6 on the eve of the U.S. championships, the story of Nancy and Tonya has riveted the country.

A television audience estimated at up to 100 million Americans is expected to watch the tape-delayed broadcast of the women's technical program, a tense 2-minute high-wire act on ice.

Even though the program is worth only 33.3 percent of the overall score, one slip on one of eight required elements will likely doom a skater's gold-medal hopes before Friday night's free-skating final.

But there is more, much more, at play here.

Skating's scandal has boomeranged, a tawdry crime and its aftermath actually boosting the sport's popularity. What was once an insular sport populated by fur-coated volunteers and bright-eyed child stars is floating inexorably to the big money and the big time.

The agents are circling, even before the Olympic gold is handed out.

"Everyone is overwhelmed by this story of Lady Macbeth and Snow White," said Michael Rosenberg, Harding's former agent.

"This will put skating on the map, just like the Super Bowl $H pushed football," he said.

The money

The attack has made a millionaire of Kerrigan even before she touches the Olympic ice. Disney paid $1 million for the rights to her life story and her appearances at skating shows.

And there will be more deals to come -- if she wins the gold.

"If Nancy wins, she'll have a career that will span a lifetime," said Kerrigan's agent, Jerry Solomon.

For Harding, who once said she wanted to turn the gold into millions, an Olympic victory would likely not bring great wealth.

She has already cashed in on her fame, signing an exclusive interview deal with the tabloid TV show "Inside Edition" for a reported $600,000.

But she remains under suspicion, even though no charges have been filed against her. Her ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, has implicated her in the assault, and three other men, including her bodyguard, have also been arrested.

"She's the villain now," said Rosenberg. "But, you know, Gorgeous George made a lot of money on the wrestling circuit."

Since arriving in Norway Jan. 16, Harding has been surrounded by camera crews, reporters, coaches and choreographers.

And the practice sessions have been the most chronicled in skating history. Eye to eye, toe pick to toe pick, Harding and Kerrigan skate together daily.

Kerrigan has appeared relaxed, comfortable with the surroundings of a cool ice rink after spending weeks confined in her home in Stoneham, Mass., dodging reporters while rehabilitating her right knee.

Harding's workouts have been dismal. She cries one minute, laughs the next, completes a series of triple axels and then falls out of a spin.

She is taking anti-inflammatory drugs to ease the swelling in her sprained right ankle.

But for the next few days, it is the skating, pure and simple, that will take center stage.

The past does not matter on ice. This is a sport of the moment. Do the triples, play to the audience, woo the judges, those are the standards that matter.

This is one of the most anticipated events in Olympic history.

For a night, it overshadows all the other great events of these games, the triumph of Dan Jansen, the victories of Johann Olav Koss, the glitter and controversy of an ice dancing final.

"There will be a lot of pressure out there," said Scott Hamilton, the 1984 Olympic men's champion and now a commentator for CBS. "Some people feed off the surroundings. Sometimes, you need something extra away from the skating.

"But these two women have been through a great deal publicly. It prepares them and softens the impact of the Olympic ice. The worst thing you can do now is step on the ice and say, 'Oh, my God, it's the Olympic Games.' You have to shut it off."

'Sport is the same'

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