'Much Ado About Nothing' was apt for this drama

February 24, 1994|By Bill Tanton

In a way, the music said it all. Tonya Harding skated her Olympic Games technical program yesterday to "Much Ado About Nothing."

To many, that sums up this whole Tonya-Nancy melodrama, which has gripped America since Nancy Kerrigan was whacked on the knee Jan. 6, and which will have its on-ice conclusion tomorrow night in Hamar, Norway.

There has been much ado about it, all right.

On Feb. 6, when lawsuits and countersuits were being filed and the FBI was investigating the attack on Kerrigan and trying to determine if Tonya Harding had a role in it, Baltimore City's state's attorney, Stuart Simms, gave a talk at the Second Presbyterian Church.

His theme was a serious one: How Responsive Is Our Legal System? But in his opening remarks, Simms shrugged and admitted somewhat disgustedly:

"A lot of people think the most important case in our courts today concerns whether some woman will be allowed to ice skate."

Simms was right. This thing became bigger than anyone dreamed a figure skating story could ever be.

People who normally have no interest in the sport have been caught up in this. Some say it has made figure skating a major sport.

That sort of talk takes me back to another celebrated event in modern American sport -- the Billie Jean King-Bobby Riggs tennis exhibition on Sept. 20, 1973.

People got emotional over that, too -- even people who had had no interest in tennis.

Riggs, 55 years old, had already beaten Margaret Court in a promotion in California by psyching her out. Now he said he wanted King. He could beat her, too, he said. He was belittling the women's tour.

"How good are they," Riggs asked, "if they can't beat an old guy like me?"

King couldn't refuse the challenge. Riggs ballyhooed the match so well that it had to be held in the new Houston Astrodome to accommodate the crowd.

The attendance was 30,472 -- the largest crowd ever to see a tennis match to this day. An estimated 50 million around the world watched it on TV.

Billie Jean won the $200,000 prize, but Riggs, ever the hustler, had so many side bets he made out financially.

Riggs knew what he was doing. His instinct told him that some events transcend sports, such as the Tonya-Nancy thing has today.

Riggs knew the feminist movement was just getting up a head of steam. He was sure the women of the country would rally behind Billie Jean -- and they did. King won the match, but 34 years after winning Wimbledon, Riggs found himself a bigger celebrity than ever.

"When I could really play," he said, "who the hell knew? Wimbledon, 1939. Just tennis people. Now I got one foot in the grave and everybody knows me."

Riggs-King was pure circus. It would have done Ringling proud. But it did have a hand in launching the tennis boom of the '70s.

Tonya-Nancy is much ado about something. Criminal charges have been made in the attack on Kerrigan. Further questioning awaits Tonya. This is more than a circus.

Estimates are that 100 million are watching on TV when Nancy and Tonya skate. New eyes are looking at this sport.

But figure skating didn't need this black eye to win a larger following. The sport has been enjoying considerable popularity for years.

CBS realized that when it paid $295 million for the rights to these Olympics. Forty percent of the network's TV hours from Norway are devoted to figure skating.

Kerrigan, by posting the highest score in the technical program yesterday, proved that she has recovered from the clubbing of her knee.

Nancy was picture perfect and should win a medal tomorrow night. Harding, in 10th place, is all but out of medal contention.

No matter how Kerrigan does in the freestyle program, which accounts for two-thirds of the final score, Nancy will be enriched through her new celebrity. So will Tonya.

Kerrigan has a major deal with Disney that could be worth as much as $10 million. Harding has signed with "Inside Edition" and probably will be the subject of a made-for-TV movie.

For deals like that, I might take a whack on the knee.

Footnote to the Riggs-King exhibition:

Early on the morning after the match, I had a phone call from Houston from the late Frank Roberts. Roberts was known as Mr. Tennis around Baltimore, he was so involved in the game.

"You should have been here last night," Mr. Tennis said. "I had a great seat in the press box, and afterward they had a terrific press party. I talked with Riggs and Billie Jean. Everybody was there."

"How'd you get in there?" I asked.

"I told them I was you," he said.

He did, too. That's a true story.

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