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  Give Tonya Harding Her Due

By Richard Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 3, 1994; Page A27




If the Olympics held a Kangaroo Court event, Ronald H. Hoevet would win the gold medal. Although he is the lawyer for Tonya Harding's former husband, Jeff Gillooly, he has also acted as a prosecutor and Olympic official. In a 45-minute televised news conference, he called for Harding's prosecution, her banning from the upcoming Winter Olympics and — oh, yes — due legal process — an example of eating the cake and having it too. If Harding is accorded due process, she's going to skate for her country.

As of this writing, Harding has not been charged with a crime or convicted of one. All she has admitted is that she learned of the plot to disable her rival Nancy Kerrigan after the fact. She was, you could say, a tad late in fessing up, but that sort of lie is not a crime in Oregon, although, to be sure, a coverup is pretty much what Watergate was all about.

Permit me a stipulation: I would not be surprised if Harding was as guilty as her ex says she is. "Cui bono?" is a Latin legal phrase that means "Who benefits?" Had Kerrigan been taken out of the Olympics, Harding would have been the prime beneficiary. But her motley entourage of bodyguards, hangers-on and former husband/boyfriend would also have benefited since, presumably, a percentage of the vast wealth Harding thought awaited her would have gone to them.

The word "sportsmanship" has been much bandied about lately. Officials of either the U.S. Olympic Committee or the U.S. Figure Skating Association have talked of Olympic ideals and the spirit of the games. There is something to this, of course — but not much. The basic issue here is money, maybe lots of it. The winner of the gold medal is usually showered with endorsement offers — although, aside from Mace, it's hard to see what Harding could endorse.

So we are talking about more than a game, a supposedly amateur event at that. We are talking, instead, of a livelihood. Barring a conviction — at the very least, an indictment — Harding would be deprived of all she worked for on the basis of nothing more than allegations. At the moment, these allegations look convincing, and certainly everything we know about Harding makes her seem a likely conspirator. But a troubling detail remains: She's been convicted of nothing.

It's possible, of course, that if Harding skates for the red, white and blue at Lillehammer, Norway, a gold medal might be awarded to a person who is later convicted of a crime — an attack on her main competitor. That would hardly be something to cheer about. But it would be far worse if she was barred from Olympic competition and later legally exonerated.

The polls tell us that the public wants Harding out of the Olympics, that it thinks her guilty. But the public would have lynched the Menendez brothers for the killing of their parents — and until the trial, I would have cheered that outcome. But a good lawyer, Leslie Abramson, turned perpetrators into victims. Whatever you might think of the outcome of the two trials — hung juries in both cases — getting the other side of the story has irreparably altered our first impressions. What might a savvy lawyer like Abramson do if she got Gillooly on the stand? Maybe nothing. But the operative word is "maybe."

The contrast between Harding and Kerrigan is so stark that if this real-life drama were a Hollywood script, demands would be made for more subtlety. Harding stands in contrast not only to her rival but to her sport itself. She's a mutt among supposed purebreds. She's crowned by a catastrophic dye job, costumed by the ice rink equivalent of Frederick's of Hollywood — not a diamond in the rough, but coal instead. She talks tough, hangs with the wrong people and has the star quality of a dumdum bullet. Whether she is a better skater than Kerrigan, I cannot say. She is certainly a more interesting one now, though.

But, really, none of this matters. It does not matter that Kerrigan's future as a skating star is ensured while Harding's is not. It does not matter that someone else would take Harding's place on the Olympic team, ensuring that person a measure of fame and fortune. It does not matter, either, that Harding could never fit the stereotype of the pristine woman skater and that her dreams of vast riches, not to mention all the work she has done, have evaporated.

The only thing that matters is due process — not the chance that Harding might be innocent, but that she is innocent until proven otherwise. Whatever the Olympic ideals might be, whatever the word "sportsmanship" might mean, if they are not consistent with the most basic of American values they amount to synonyms for "appearances." As long as Tonya Harding maintains her innocence and as long as she is not proved guilty, she ought to be able to skate for the United States.

Let the games begin — with Tonya Harding.

© Copyright 1994 The Washington Post Company

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