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  Harding's Fate May Rest on Dotted Line

By Christine Brennan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 7, 1994; Page B1

LILLEHAMMER, Norway — On Jan. 9, a day after winning the U.S. Olympic trials in Detroit, figure skater Tonya Harding was handed two pieces of paper. At the top of Page 1, in bold type, was this heading: XVIIth Olympic Winter Games Code of Conduct.

What Harding received was a document that is given out by the U.S. Olympic Committee and signed by all athletes who qualify for the Games. We don't know for sure if Harding read what it said, but she definitely signed on the dotted line. It's in her handwriting, all right, and better still, it was discovered in the USOC's filing cabinets, not in the trash.

The words that make up the athlete's code of conduct are not hard to understand. First comes a paragraph that discusses the importance of being an Olympian, followed by this sentence:

"Should a disciplinary problem arise (i.e. misconduct, breaking of the law), it will be dealt with by the Games Administrative Board ... "

The board's decision, the code says in bold, capital letters, "WILL BE FINAL." Even if an athlete, considering this the formality that it is, skims through the two pages, that is one sentence that is impossible to miss.

Eight likely disciplinary actions are listed next. Some are serious, some are funny. The administrative board can, for instance, revoke the athlete's village visitor privileges, take away the Olympian's USA uniform, or, in a page right out of the babysitter's handbook, restrict the athlete to his or her room.

That's kids' stuff compared to this one: "Expulsion from the team," it says. "Sent home immediately regardless of whether or not my competition has taken place."


"Signed, Tonya Harding, 1-9-94."

Look at it this way; at the very least, Harding can't say she didn't know about this in advance.

More importantly, those two pages are what the USOC can use — and more than likely will use — to remove Harding from the 1994 U.S. Olympic team. The USOC seems to have caught Harding on the issue of misconduct, thanks to her Jan. 27 admission that she learned about the plot to harm rival Nancy Kerrigan and failed to tell either the police or U.S. Olympic officials about it.

They also appear to have her on the paragraph in all capital letters, the part about observing and abiding by the rules of the USFSA. Those rules include a code of ethics that says an athlete must "exemplify the highest standards of fairness, ethical behavior and genuine good sportsmanship."

Again, even if we believe Harding is completely innocent of any criminal wrongdoing, she bent, if not broke, every one of those standards with her Jan. 27 statement. She knew information about an act that severely disrupted and altered events at her sport's national championship/Olympic trials and didn't tell anyone about it.

While USFSA and USOC officials were worried that a guy in a ski cap might try to kneecap another skater, Harding, a member in good standing of the USFSA, had information she kept to herself.

This is the deal: You join an organization, you play by its rules. If you're an NCAA basketball coach, you know if you give a high school basketball player $100, it's not against the law — but it's a violation of NCAA rules. George Steinbrenner wasn't thrown in jail a few years ago for having contacts with a known gambler, but he still got tossed out of baseball "for the good of the game." What's more, the USOC suspended Steinbrenner, one of its vice presidents, for nearly a year, not because of any violation of USOC rules, but because of problems in baseball.

And so it is with Harding. The USOC has rules that govern her actions, rules that directly speak to exactly what Harding said she did.

What's more, it just might have a legal case too. In 1978, the United States enacted a law called the Amateur Sports Act, which established the USOC's constitution. And the USOC's constitution stipulates that there will be a Games Administrative Board, "which shall have final authority with respect to all matters regarding the United States official delegation at the site of the Games ... "

So, when all the legal experts go on TV and (quite correctly) make their points about innocent-until-proven-guilty and due process, the men and women who run the USOC should stand up and say, "Guess what? Our ability to remove Tonya Harding from the Olympic team for what we perceive to be a breach of ethics just happens to be the law of the land."

Now somewhere out there, perhaps in Portland, Ore., sits an attorney or two who would love to test the USOC's interpretation of the law — in court. And, this case being what it is, that probably will happen. The draw to determine the competition order in the first phase of women's figure skating is Feb. 21; do you think the U.S. Supreme Court might be burning the midnight oil on the 20th?

Harding has lawyers; so does the USOC. They know they'll be in for a fight if they kick her off the team. Expect this to drag on, then finish with a flurry of court orders. Just like in basketball, where, in a close game, you want the last shot. In this case, the one with the last judge's order wins.

This won't stop the shouting. But for her or against her, reality checks are necessary. And here's the biggest one of all: One month ago, on Jan. 6, Kerrigan was hit on the knee in a plot planned, in part, by Jeff Gillooly, Harding's live-in ex-husband, according to Gillooly. Harding said she didn't know about the plot beforehand, but did find out about it later. And she didn't tell her federation, or local authorities. She says she broke no laws, and she may very well be right. But she violated the rules of the USFSA, and the USOC — lesser offenses overall, but enormous ones now.

So the USOC is considering acting against her. Methodically, at its own pace, in a week or so, it probably will.

Perhaps USOC officers will send her home. Or maybe they'll just tell her to go to her room. And stay there.

© Copyright 1994 The Washington Post Company

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