Image and Guilt Are not the Same - January 20, 1994


Personal Assistant
Image and Guilt Are Not the Same

By Tony Kornheiser
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 20, 1994; Page D1

For selfish reasons, I want to see Tonya Harding skate in Lillehammer. I want to see Harding skate against Nancy Kerrigan — even if they're never actually on the ice together, not even in warmups. I want to see how they handle this, how Harding handles the pressure of being cast as the villain in a morality play; whether for all her toughness, she's tough enough to withstand the scorn. I want to see how Kerrigan handles the pressure of being everybody's angel; whether she can hold up all those well-wishers, and not collapse under the weight of so much sympathy. I want to see how they greet each other, if they smile at each other, or stare at each other, or ignore each other.
It's a sportswriter's dream story.

It's a story about greed, about pathos, about violence, about stupidity, about compassion, maybe even about redemption.

It's the best story in sports.

If they both go to Lillehammer, it will be the only story in sports.

At the moment the only crime that we know Tonya Harding has committed is not being Nancy Kerrigan.

She isn't as beautiful, or as polished, or as graceful, or as stunningly bejeweled. She isn't within the safe boundary of the image police. Bert Parks would never have gazed at Tonya and sung, "There she is, walking on air she is, fairer than fair she is, Miss Amer-i-ca."

She's a smoker and a pool player and a hot rodder, and she married young and apparently married wrong. Maybe she got it from her mother, who married seven times.

Tough cookie, Tonya Harding. Maybe too tough, talking about "kicking Nancy's butt." If that was a male athlete confidently talking about "kicking butt," we'd applaud. And if you look at how tough it was for a poor girl like Harding to climb the unfriendly skating ladder, "kicking butt" is precisely how she got from rung to rung. But that's not how we like our ladies figure skaters. We like them elegant like Peggy Fleming, or perky like Dorothy Hamill. But not tough like Tonya Harding. Not trailer park honeys with bleach-blond, curling iron hair like Tonya Harding.

Nancy Kerrigan may be a tough cookie too, but it's on the inside where we can't see it — and it doesn't make her hair frizz. Kerrigan was born luckier than Harding. She had a face, as Bob Seger sang, "that let her get her way." Every day now, Kerrigan gets closer to that gold medal. Mike Lupica wrote in the Daily News that Kerrigan probably doesn't even have to skate; they'll give her the gold just for clearing customs.

It wasn't hard to conclude Harding was getting shafted by the frenzy in the media that was fed by the prim and insulated skating community, being punished for not being demure or delicate. People looked at Harding's hardscrabble past — and the shady crowd surrounding her, including that licelike husband she can't quite wash out of her hair — and took eager liberty to pile on.

Yes, Harding could have been more gracious after Kerrigan was kneecapped. Instead of saying she'd kick her butt in Lillehammer, she could have said, "I'm horrified to hear of allegations that people in my camp are being connected with this tragic, mean incident. My heart goes out to Nancy. And Nancy, I pledge myself to doing whatever I can do to help and support you, and I look forward to being your Olympic teammate and representing our country." She could have said that, but David Gergen wasn't around to write it. Do you think someone who had so little money for skating clothes that she had to sew on her own sequins would know about a spin doctor?

The problem with writing a column about how Tonya Harding has become a victim is that this story is a moving target. It doesn't stop conveniently for deadlines.

Yesterday was not a good day for Tonya.

Her husband, or ex-husband, or quasi-husband, Jeff Gillooly, was charged with conspiring to whack Nancy Kerrigan. And for the first time, other than in hearsay, Tonya herself was linked to the conspiracy, on a claim by the fat oaf bodyguard that she made some phone calls to abet the process.

The FBI interviewed her for 10 hours on Tuesday; that's a long time. By this time they know more about Tonya Harding than you know about your brother. If they don't charge her, how could anyone say she shouldn't go to Lillehammer? On the basis of what? Rumor? Hearsay? Kerrigan has already said she can handle being on the same team with Harding. Let Harding skate. Give her the chance to show people what she's made of. Did her rough-and-tumble upbringing fortify her to skate well enough to convince the judges she's not Mata Hari?

What we know now doesn't disqualify her.

Testimony of one fat oaf, who might be trying to save his considerable skin, isn't enough. Two fat oafs and an ex-husband and it's showtime.

Most of my friends say this is hoplelessly naive — they think Harding is in this up to her eyeballs — but I think it's possible, if not plausible, that Harding was unaware of the plot; athletes can go into a zone and be oblivious to almost everything. You can live with someone and not know what they are up to; every life is not an Oliver Stone movie. She might have heard bits and pieces and not connected the dots. (She might also have known, and stood mute. I don't have a neat place to put that one. That's where you conjure Poe and listen for her telltale heart.)

But if Harding is charged, she shouldn't go. Presumption of innocence doesn't guarantee her a seat on the 747 to Norway. The Olympic team isn't a courtroom, it's more like a club. When you join it, you agree to abide by its rules. One of the rules gives the USOC the authority to remove a member for the good of the team. It's not a right to be on the Olympic team, it's a privilege. If there's enough evidence to charge her — and let's assume the police are not going to do so capriciously; they know Harding has worked her whole life to get to the Olympics, and they're not going to be cowboys about it, too many people are watching — the USOC has to consider the message it's sending by sponsoring Harding's trip to Lillehammer.

1. It will spook Kerrigan. If there's a charge, there's no more pretense that Harding didn't know about the conspiracy. You have to bend over backward for Kerrigan, who's already taken a hit.

2. It says that the U.S. is willing to send over an athlete, under its flag and protection, who has given us reason to believe she participated in a plot to deliberately injure another U.S. athlete. That's way beyond the bounds of honest competition. We're lucky Kerrigan wasn't seriously injured. These goons could have crippled her. Our nation doesn't stand for that.

© Copyright 1994 The Washington Post Company