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  All Eyes on Ice for Harding-Kerrigan Showdown

By Christine Brennan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 23, 1994; Page B1




HAMAR, Norway, Feb. 22 — It began with a whack on the knee.

Seven weeks later, it has come to this: a worldwide television audience of 2½ billion people, according to the London Times, the most to watch any event on television — ever; a multimillion dollar future for Nancy Kerrigan, whether she finishes first or 10th in the Winter Olympics; soul-searching and finger-pointing by the two sports organizations that wanted to remove Tonya Harding from the U.S. Olympic team; and a new identity for figure skating as a major league sport that appeals to the masses, at least for the moment.

On the eve of Wednesday night's women's figure skating technical program at the Winter Olympics, a world sits poised for one of the grandest dramas ever to be played out on a sports stage, one that will end Friday with the free skate program and the awarding of medals. Twenty-seven figure skaters will compete at the tiny Olympic Amphitheatre, some of the finest ever to attend the Games, but the spotlight will shine on only two, Kerrigan and Harding.

"Let's face it," said a chagrined Brian Boitano, the 1988 Olympic gold medalist who finished sixth here last week. "People will watch Tonya and Nancy to see if they get in a fistfight. It's terrible. They're watching for the wrong reasons."

The irony is that although figure skaters and officials cringe at what the publicity over the Kerrigan-Harding saga is doing to their sport, they also realize they've never had it so good.

"As my dad says, 'It's a bum wind that doesn't blow someone uphill,' " said Paul Wylie, the 1992 Olympic silver medalist. "This has introduced a lot of people to the sport, and while we haven't heard the end of the criminal side of it, right now, it's just skating.

"Ours is the best sport for the family to watch and enjoy," Wylie added. "There is no violence in the sport. Well, normally there is no violence in the sport. There's music, there's movement and there are exciting personalities that are able to come through. People will see this Wednesday night."

Always among the five most popular televised sports in the country, figure skating stands to reap some tremendous rewards from the black eye it received over the plot to attack Kerrigan, and Harding's alleged role in it.

And those rewards most easily are measured in ratings. CBS likely will set a ratings record for the Winter Games they paid $295 million to cover. Through the first 10 days of competition, the network is averaging a rating of nearly 26 for its prime-time coverage. That compares with the previous high of 23.6 for ABC's coverage of the 1980 "Miracle on Ice" Games.

"I don't believe there's any scenario that will keep the Wednesday audience from being extraordinary," said David Poltrack, head of research for CBS. "But there are some unknowns. Because of the time difference {six hours between Norway and the East Coast}, the outcome of the event on Wednesday and Friday will be available in the United States on the early news shows. People can certainly avoid tuning in, and we also believe people will watch something even if they know the outcome, especially the skating."

If most people in the United States want to see Kerrigan, Harding or both in medal contention, then how must CBS feel?

"If either one is in medal contention, which you expect will be the case, it will mean a much higher rating for Wednesday night," Poltrack said. "And then if that holds, Friday will provide the final chapter, and that will be even stronger. If both are in medal contention Friday, it will be a really extraordinary audience.

"We got a 29.4 [rating, which is the percentage of TV households tuned into the program] last Sunday, and we'd expect to exceed a 30 rating on Wednesday and Friday. Anything over 30 is an extraordinary television event."

As a comparison, the final episode of "M*A*S*H" received a 60.2 rating, which made it the top-rated TV show in history. The highest-rated sports event was Super Bowl XVI between the Cincinnati Bengals and San Francisco 49ers in 1982, which drew a 49.1 rating. The highest-rated Winter Olympics was last Sunday's 29.4 rating. And the highest-rated prime-time half-hour in Olympic history was the 1988 "Battle of the Carmens," between figure skaters Katarina Witt and Debi Thomas, which got a 40.2 rating in 15 major cities for ABC. Witt captured the gold, Thomas the bronze.

While CBS is showing the entire Winter Games, figure skating is driving its coverage: 40 percent of its 122 television hours are being devoted to the sport.

Americans are watching even though their figure skaters are not doing well so far. It's entirely possible that neither Kerrigan nor Harding will finish in the top three, which would mean that, for the first time since 1936, the United States will get shut out of an Olympic women's figure skating medal.

But, win or lose, Kerrigan already is set for life financially. After winning a bronze medal at the 1992 Winter Games, she signed on with several companies, including Seiko, Evian and Reebok, and began making a very good living. But it was nothing like what happened after the Jan. 6 attack at the Olympic trials in Detroit that left Kerrigan with a severely bruised right knee.

Of the hundreds of offers she received, she and her agent, Jerry Solomon, accepted the big one: Disney. She has a package that includes a skating TV special, a skating video, a made-for-TV-movie, a children's book, at least one acting role, appearances at Disneyland and Disney World and a commercial. The price tag is somewhere between $500,000 and $10 million, Solomon confirmed, but would not get specific.

It has been said by sports agents that the Olympic gold medal in women's figure skating can be worth up to $10 million. If Kerrigan wins it, it likely will be worth even more.

"If she wins the gold, she's Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill and Kristi Yamaguchi rolled into one," said Michael Rosenberg, a figure skating agent who once represented Harding.

Said Solomon, of Arlington, Va.-based ProServ: "Nancy has opportunities greater than any figure skater in history, because of all this and because of who she is and how she looks, on and off the ice. The stars are properly aligned for her."

And if Harding wins? No one is certain, but her appeal is not nearly as great — especially if she ends up being charged in the attack on Kerrigan. Harding has denied any wrongdoing, but has been implicated by Jeff Gillooly, her ex-husband, who confessed to hatching the plot.

Still, Harding has gained tremendous notoriety in the case. She has signed a deal with "Inside Edition," and likely will be involved in a made-for-TV movie about her life.

Harding's fate within the two sports bodies that govern figure skating and the Olympics — the U.S. Figure Skating Association and the U.S. Olympic Committee — is yet to be determined. A USFSA committee earlier this month decided Harding's conduct warranted a disciplinary hearing, which is scheduled for March 9, but it did nothing to remove her from the team, although it had the authority to suspend her.

The USOC Games Administrative Board scheduled a hearing in Oslo for Feb. 15 to discuss Harding's Olympic fate. But on Feb. 10, Harding's lawyers sued the USOC, seeking $20 million in punitive damages and at least $5 million in compensatory damages to block the USOC's hearing.

In the early morning hours of Feb. 13 in Lillehammer, the USOC announced a settlement in which the USOC agreed to forgo its hearing and let Harding skate if she agreed to drop her lawsuit, which she did. For the USOC, the Harding case had become too sensational, and a hearing on Harding's Olympic status promised to disrupt the Olympics.

Both the USFSA and the USOC were caught off-guard by the numerous legal issues the Harding case brought before them, and officials of both ended up blaming the other for letting Harding slip through the cracks.

Decades from now, what has happened and will happen to her will be seen as a watershed case for both athletes' rights and organizational control, or lack thereof, over an athlete.

"It's not just this, but a number of things that have occurred the past year or two to necessitate changes in the Amateur Sports Act [the 1978 U.S. law that established the USOC] as well as our constitution and by-laws," USOC Executive Director Harvey Schiller said today. "The very fact it's called the Amateur Sports Act is worth taking a look at in this day and age of professionals in the Olympic movement."

Both Harding and 400-meter world-record holder Butch Reynolds, who was suspended for two years over a controversial drug test, took their cases to court. Reynolds was awarded $27 million in damages from the International Amateur Athletic Federation, track and field's world governing body.

"With the Olympics coming up in Atlanta" in 1996, said Schiller, "this is something that we need to look at."

But, for the next three days anyway, the Harding affair becomes a sports story, played out on the ice, not in a courtroom. Some say figure skating never will be the same.

"Companies are pulling their money out of tennis and taking it to figure skating," said Solomon, who represents athletes in both sports. "If you look at the demographics, it makes sense. It's a sport people love to watch."

Up until now, it has been women more than men, studies have shown. But, according to Linda Leaver, Boitano's coach, the Kerrigan-Harding story has brought men into the sport.

"This, particularly, has gotten more males interested," she said. "Before, some men didn't want to admit they watched. Now, everyone will be watching. And when they watch it, they will see how athletic the women are, and perhaps gain a new appreciation of figure skating as a sport."

Staff writers Serge F. Kovaleski and Leonard Shapiro in Washington contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1994 The Washington Post Company

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