Mark Spitz sees a familiar bane in Kerrigan's pain

March 11, 1994|By MIKE LITTWIN

I hope I'm up-to-date on this, because the Nancy Kerrigan affair has had more twists and turns than a triple Salchow. But the way I understand it, we hate Nancy now.

That's right, isn't it?

According to my sources on the street, as of late yesterday, she's a poor loser, a whiner, snippy and has said bad things about Mickey Mouse.

And we thought she was . . . perfect?

We did.

We thought so because she got whacked on the knee and, well, that's the only reason. The knee-whacking made her a hero. We loved her for it. It wasn't the skating. Name another Olympic silver medalist who got this famous.

We loved her courage, her stamina, her endurance, even her teeth. And now? Now, we have a sense we were deceived.

I know how she can get this thing straightened out. Get whacked on the other knee. Better yet, she could get hit by a bus. No real damage, just some sympathy bruises and, most important, a brave, brave smile. On no account should she say: "Why me? Why me?" In fact, she shouldn't say anything at all.

Tomorrow night, Kerrigan is the host of "Saturday Night Live." She'll have to talk. It's part of the gig, and it just might be a disaster. As the philosopher said, ice-skating is easy, comedy is hard.

People will watch and say they thought she'd be warmer or smarter or taller.

After which, I see for her a few more tearful TV shots, like the recent session with Jane Pauley, in which Kerrigan says, between sobs, how tough her life is. Sample quote: "I'm an athlete. I'm not perfect, I'm not a Disney character. I'm a person."

Nobody likes a crybaby, especially one with $6 million in &L endorsement money. And, sooner probably than later, she'll fade from the scene. Her rise and fall would be as American as tabloid TV.

She sees it coming herself.

"It's not fair that they put me up on that pedestal, because I didn't want to be there, and I don't understand why the same people that put me there want to take me down so fast," she said to Pauley, who was properly, oh, even enthusiastically, sympathetic.

But Kerrigan is right, you know. She didn't do anything to make herself a hero. She hasn't done anything to make herself a bum, either. Nobody understands her position better than Mark Spitz.

You remember Spitz. He was the hero of the '72 Olympics. He won the seven golds. He had the rugged good looks. Time crowned him the Jewish Omar Sharif. He was going to dental school, so it figured he might even be smart.

And then?

"Nancy is probably the first person since my Olympics who has gone through the same kind of roller coaster," Spitz said by phone from his home in Los Angeles. "They put you on a pedestal. And then they tear you down.

"To show you how things have changed in 20 years, it took a month before it happened to me. They got her in four days."

But his troubles started right away. His golds came in the year of the Munich massacre of Israeli athletes. Asked to comment at the time, Spitz, obviously unprepared and probably shaken, said, "It's tragic -- no comment."

When Spitz came home, he was a guest on a Bob Hope special. The reviews were unanimous. If he'd been any stiffer, they would have needed a chalk outline.

"I wasn't an actor, and I wasn't an entertainer," Spitz would say years later. "Why should anybody think I would be?"

It's a rule of physics that the fall will be as great as the buildup. Spitz blamed the press for his problems. He blames the press for Kerrigan's.

But it goes deeper than that. A mondo-bizarro chain of events made Kerrigan famous. That doesn't keep you famous, though, indefinitely. There must be something more.

Now, there's a backlash against her. There may be anti-backlash next. Or she could just disappear.

"This is not journalism's proudest moment," Spitz says. "Where was the press when she was up at 5 o'clock in the morning all those years at the rink, working so hard, falling down as she tried to perfect those jumps? . . .

"This will probably make her a less sensitive person. She may become more cynical, feeling that anyone, anywhere, can attack you."

Spitz now produces infomercials. You might have seen him on NordicTrack. He's still got a pretty face, and he still has name recognition. Fran Tarkenton does infomercials. It's the place you can go when you're almost forgotten. Someday, Kerrigan may join them there.

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