by | Feb 24, 1994 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

HAMAR, Norway — In the end, she was nothing more than the eighth skater of the night, a name on a list, after the seventh, before the ninth. Tonya Harding gave a flawed performance, left the ice sneezing and walked off with barely a word, her asthma making her breathing difficult.

If the world somehow expected this woman in a skimpy red outfit to transform into Goliath through all the headlines, ex-lovers, topless photos, criminal investigations, tabloid shows, mobs of reporters and billowing rumors that followed her across the ocean to these Winter Olympics, well, you simply watch too many movies. The laws of gravity do not bend for celebrity.

So when Harding made a limp triple jump and landed with both feet, there was no TV ratings angel to swoop in and save her.

And when she two-footed a double flip, there was no screenwriter to cover the judges’ eyes.

End of showdown. Let it die, CBS. Harding got what she deserved — 10th place after the technical program, virtually eliminated from even bronze medal contention, although, in the hazy world she seems to live in these days, she still said she won’t be satisfied until “I have the gold medal around my neck.”

She will learn to live unsatisfied. Lots of us do.

Few of us, on the other hand, can turn bad luck into glory the way Nancy Kerrigan seems to be doing. Coming into the Olympics with a million-dollar deal already made with Disney, Kerrigan skated Wednesday as if performing in the Magic Kingdom. She completed all her jumps — cymbals could have crashed with each one — and put enough Cinderella life into a so-so program to earn the judges’ favor, and their marks.

Kerrigan, skating next to last, finished to loud, biased applause from a houseful of Americans. By the time the ice shavings melted, she was in first place, ahead of Oksana Baiul of Ukraine, the world champion, and Surya Bonaly of France, the European champion. Before you waste breath arguing who deserved what; it doesn’t matter. All three are, in effect, dead even. Whoever wins the long program Friday night goes home with the gold.

But Kerrigan already has won the battle of the story line. Through no action of her own — that seems to be a theme with Nancy, doesn’t it? — she has jettisoned a huge burden: Tonya Harding.

Can you imagine if Harding were also up there in the standings, and they were side by side in the warm-ups Friday, minutes away from Olympic medal time? Harding, a woman who might or might not have ordered an attack on Kerrigan, breathing on her in the wings?

Won’t happen. Kerrigan is on a cloud. Harding is a fly stuck on a No-Pest strip.

End of showdown.You can’t believe talk

“I feel great,” Kerrigan said after her performance.

“I feel great,” Harding said after hers.

So much for quotes. You can’t believe talk in this miniseries, but you can believe what you see. How fitting then, that this drama, which attracted perhaps 100 million American TV viewers, was actually played out in a hall smaller than your average college basketball arena. The noise in the Hamar Olympic Amphitheatre was never huge — not even for Kerrigan — and there were moments when you could yell to someone across the building and be heard perfectly. Limited seats. Well-behaved crowds. This is really what the Olympics are like. Which only shows how much frosting has been put on the cake by the international press.

Here’s another truth: For the last seven days, Harding’s practices have been weak. She never finished anything, and she fell all over the place. Should there be any wonder that she sits in 10th place? Harding is a good skater, but not the best, and with all the garbage that has fallen on her head
— much of it her own doing — it’s no surprise she wasn’t as prepared as she should have been. Practice can be tough when everyone around you is getting arrested.

And yet . . .

“The crowd was wonderful, and the ice felt great,” Harding said. “There was a lot of support out there.”

I’m worried about this woman. I think she’s cracking up. Either she is the consummate liar — and that is entirely possible — or she has completely lost touch with reality. In the past few weeks, this admittedly rough-hewn, cigarette- smoking skater has talked about hugging Kerrigan, finding God, wishing the best for all competitors and starting a Special Olympics fund. I think she believes she can happy-talk her way out of everything.

That doesn’t wash with judges. They showed no bend toward Harding, giving her marks that sank as low as 4.8. Not that judges can be understood. Just to show you the ridiculousness of their behavior, take the Hungarian skater Krisztina Czako, for instance. She finished her routine, and moments later was rated third best of the night by the British judge, and 16th best by the Canadian judge.

One says third and one says 16th? That’s like one judge thinking “art” means Van Gogh and another thinking it’s Snoopy.

But they were fairly uniform on Harding.

And even more so on Kerrigan.She knows how to block out

“My expectation was to go out and skate a clean program,” Kerrigan said, with her trademark smile, “and that’s what I did.”

You have to hand this to the Campbell’s soup woman: She knows how to block out. Given all the fuss these last six weeks — and that she hasn’t skated competitively since being clubbed on the right knee — Kerrigan was simply awesome Wednesday. The ice seemed to brighten for her performance, her lines were clean, and while I might argue that her artistic elements were not as strong as those of other skaters, you couldn’t convince the scoreboard, or the crowd.

But let’s be clear on something: This was not a triumph of good over evil. We don’t really know anything about what goes on with these skaters, they are so much fluff and glitter. Harding has a bodyguard. Kerrigan has a by-her-side agent. I don’t trust any of them.

No, Wednesday was merely a stronger skater giving a better performance on an important night.

“Did you watch Tonya skate?” Kerrigan was asked.

“I . . . um . . . saw it on TV while I was getting ready,” she said. “I didn’t watch the whole thing . . . um . . . I mean . . . I had to get my hair up.”

Her hair up?

Well. What did you expect? It’s figure skating! In the British broadcast of this event Wednesday night, one announcer lamented Harding’s big mistake this way: “Ah . . . the triple lutz.”

Say that a few times out loud and you’ll realize how ridiculously involved we’ve become with this story. “Ah . . . the triple lutz. Ah . . . the triple lutz.”

Ah . . . never mind. Almost over now. By Friday, Harding will be a cast member in the opening act, and Kerrigan will be ready to unlace her skates and try on the glass slipper.

Nancy on a cloud. Tonya sneezing. Years from now, we might look back on this night and be most impressed with the choice of music Harding made. Its title?

“Much Ado About Nothing.”

That Shakespeare guy, he really had a way with skating, didn’t he?


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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