For the sake of drama, hit it, Tonya LILLEHAMMER '94

February 23, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

LILLEHAMMER, Norway -- As a tax-paying, child-rearing believer in truth, justice and the American way, I hope Tonya Harding plants her nose in the ice tonight.

I hope she takes a banana-peel pratfall and winds up chewing Zamboni slush. It's only right.

But as a member of that noble (if slightly soiled) institution known as the sporting press, I hope she whacks a homer. No pun intended.

I hope she nails every jump, finishes with a graceful flourish and sends the Olympic movement into spasm over the prospect of having to award the gold medal in women's figure skating to a scheming little weasel who lied to the FBI.

What can I tell you? I'm a reporter. In my profession, when people hear about a plane crash, they go, "Oh, good story."

A reporter, at least a good one, can't be bought by money. But if the purchase price is a hellacious story, well, now you're talking.

A reporter will never cry too hard about a bad guy winning if it means a dynamite read in the next morning's paper. (Editors are different. Don't blame editors for this moral bankruptcy. The ones I know are paragons of probity.)

As much as I recognize that rooting against Tonya -- and for her porcelain rival, Nancy Kerrigan -- is the only appropriate stance for an honest, decent, hard-working American to assume as Skategate gets down to business tonight, I'm sorry, I have other factors to weigh. Such as, what's in it for me?

C'mon, we've come this far, let's go all the way. Let's see things get good and messy. Let's see judges on the spot, other skaters sweating bullets, the crowd in an uproar.

Let's see Harding skate like a sweet dream tonight in the Olympic Amphitheater and land smack dab in the middle of medal contention. Right beside Nancy, hopefully.

Wouldn't it be great?

If you think this sends the wrong message, please, spare me the lecture. Skategate stopped working as a morality play a long time ago.

Maybe it was in the beginning, when the crime seemed so dastardly. And yes, there were mental scars Nancy has had to overcome. But now that she has become America's martyr and signed with Disney and raked in millions that she never would have gotten had the goons not whacked her, it's hard to see her as much of a victim.

In many ways, the whack is the best thing that ever happened to her. Sort of takes the punch out of the morality play, if you ask me.

Of course, that doesn't mean Tonya deserves your support, although I detect a backlash resulting from this new view going around that she is "plucky." Yes, a tough little gal who lies to the police, takes off her top at Halloween parties,sues to get her way and fires off guns in parking lots. You'd love her to move in next door.

No, there is only one reason to root for her: because everyone here would go crackers. The entire Winter Olympics would spontaneously combust. It'd be blast. As someone in a DTC newsroom once said, chaos is always more interesting than order.

The alternative is for her to chew ice and finish 13th in the short program tonight. But what good is that? The story goes stale then, as stale as overcooked reindeer. Sorry, but Nancy overcoming "adversity" doesn't measure up as a theme.

Let's face it, we're trapped. To maximize the theater (and isn't that what we want?), we need the naughty little girl in contention.

She doesn't have to win the gold, understand. She can go splat in the end, as far as I'm concerned.

The perfect final scene for this soap is Nancy getting a medal, walking into the sunset past Tonya and saying, "Nice try." It's only fair.

But I just want Tonya close enough after tonight to boil the pot Friday. Close enough to have a chance. I want her going skate-to-skate with Nancy. Ali and Frazier on ice. Cowboys and Redskins in sequined wraps. Let's see what they've got.

Talk to the fur-coated skating crowd and they'll tell you it's a pipe dream. They'll tell you that Tonya has no shot, that she isn't skating well, that the judges will find a way to hammer her anyway. Nancy is the medal hope, they say.

Myself, I don't see how the judges can knock Tonya out of contention. This stuff is more objective than you think. There is a list of jumps the skaters have to land, and if they land them all, they're in good shape. The judges can only do so much. The subjectivity of artistic impression is generally used just to separate the medal winners, not the good from the bad.

So, it's up to Tonya. She can chew ice tonight, and not a soul will say it's unjust. Or she can nail every step and turn the volume of this whole endeavor up to a shrieking 11.

C'mon, which sounds like more fun?

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