Silver Medal, Golden Moral

February 26, 1994

The violence that nearly redistributed the Olympic Gold Medal in Ladies Figure Skating was the crash in practice Thursday of two 16-year-olds skating backward. But it didn't. Oksana Baiul of Ukraine skated in a bandage and pain, beautifully, last night. The favorite, which she had been all along, won by a narrow margin.

Ms. Baiul had stood second after the short program on Wednesday, and Tanja Szewczenko of Germany fifth, when they injured each other. That seemingly opened up the competition, making any outcome possible. Foul play was not suspected.

Nancy Kerrigan was standing first at the time, but her reputation as a two-minute rather than four-minute skater meant that the spectacularly balletic Ms. Baiul was still favored. Last night, Ms. Kerrigan was magnificent, but Ms. Baiul even better. The judging was fair, with no discernible sympathy vote for anyone.

If Sean Eckardt truly offered a money-back guarantee, as was reported, for Shane Stant's battering of Ms. Kerrigan's right knee on Jan. 6, Tonya Harding is entitled to her money back. That violence failed to affect the Olympic outcome. Ms. Kerrigan survived the attack to skate her best. She is entitled to whatever riches accrue for her skill and dedication and beauty on ice, and in repudiation of the conspiracy to destroy her earning power.

What Tonya Harding deserves, and will get, remain to be determined. She was inspirational in concentration at the Olympic training, but not at her competitive best on Wednesday. Last night she succumbed to the pressure she had helped to generate, making a false start, then under-performing without quite falling apart.

She must focus next on what she blotted out this week, the case for conspiracy in the attack on Ms. Kerrigan that the Portland prosecutor is assembling. And she must face the U.S. Figure Skating Association, which began hearings that jeopardize her national championship, won in Detroit on Jan. 8, and her competitive career and subsequent earning power.

Their respective fortunes provide a moral tale. Success is the outcome that the violence against Ms. Kerrigan was intended to overturn, but guaranteed. Ms. Kerrigan is assured a fortune that will more than recompense the sacrifices her parents made to buy her the training of a world-class figure skater.

Ms. Harding, less fortunate in choice of parents, made her own sacrifices to get there. These two young women are like athletes who may be superb at basketball while lacking other skills. Ms. Harding is a 10th-grade dropout. Their brilliance is in their skating. It is not clear that either does anything else particularly well.

The beating of Ms. Kerrigan prepared a triumph for her, even with Olympic silver, in what was one of the most-watched sporting events in history. It was a tragedy for Ms. Harding, however, one she may never overcome.

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