Tonya's last spill

March 18, 1994

Tonya Harding blew it. She might have been U.S. National Champion lady figure skater in fair competition. She skated through incredible difficulties to a respectable eighth in the Olympics. She might have medaled in next week's World Championships in Japan. We'll never know. Nor will she.

Ms. Harding pleaded guilty to a charge of conspiracy to hinder prosecution of the goons who smashed Nancy Kerrigan's knee on Jan. 6, putting her out of competition for the national championship. Ms. Harding does not admit approving that attack and will not be tried for it, though the prosecutor in Oregon continues to say that he has evidence that she did.

Her sentence keeps her free, as long as she stays on the West Coast and the good side of her probation officer. She has to pay a bundle of cash, which she never had before and will have a hard time earning now.

But most of all, she cannot win another medal. She is banned from the sport, that is, from the competitive side of it. Not, however, by action of the U.S. Figure Skating Association. Her lawyers thoroughly intimidated that body, which is supposed to regulate the sport. Instead, the prosecutor and judge made her resignation from the association, and therefore from competition, part of the bargained sentence. The Figure Skating Association still has to decide whether she gets to keep the national championship that she won only after her goons put Ms. Kerrigan out of the way.

No one ever faulted Tonya Harding for lack of pluck. She has that, and ability and determination and courage under fire, in abundance. Sense, however, she has had little of.

The only American woman to land a triple axel in competition is 23 and at the top of her form on the ice. So this plea bargain hurts, even though it keeps her out of jail and holds the line on lawyer bills. She will be free to watch Olympic silver medalist Kerrigan soar from lucrative triumph to triumph, which is a just dessert for Ms. Harding.

The deal also allows for redemption, a decent place in society, even a career in skating if anyone will have her, after Ms. Harding has paid her debts to society. That is what the American justice system is supposed to achieve and sometimes does.

What the plea bargain does not provide to the American public is a definitive answer on what Ms. Harding knew and approved, and when. For admirers and young skaters, that dereliction is a bummer.

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