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  Tonya's Last Tango

By Tony Kornheiser
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 26, 1994; Page G1

 Watching Tonya Hard-
ing's problems in the free skate, you got the sicken-
ing sense she might be having a nervous breakdown. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
HAMAR, Norway — Nancy gets nosed out in a photo finish.

Tonya goes nuts.

Let's begin with the more interesting story.

Just when you thought there was nothing more Tonya Harding could do to upstage the Olympics. Just when Tonya was out of medal contention, out of hope, and almost out of prime time ... she goes for the whole shebang, and pulls the closest gambit skating will ever see to Sonny Liston sitting on his stool in the first Ali fight, or Roberto Duran saying, "No mas."

First Tonya almost gets disqualified for not showing up on the ice when it was her turn to skate. They called her name. She didn't appear. They looked behind the curtain. She wasn't there. (Maybe Monty Hall should have gone behind the curtain.) They gave her two minutes to show, and started the clock. Tonya popped out with 21 seconds left and her asthma inhaler in her mouth.

She looked terrible. No, not the outfit — the plum outfit was fine, a huge improvement over that saloon getup from Wednesday night. But Tonya herself looked panicked. She was hyperventilating. In her eyes was the nervous, fearful look of a caged animal. Before starting her program she was shaking noticeably at center ice. Watching her, you got the sickening sense she might actually be having a nervous breakdown.

A handful of seconds into her program, on her very first jump, Tonya pulled out after barely one revolution, and began skating vacantly, as if she was giving up. Her eyes were bursting with tears. Then, nearly hysterical, she skated toward the judges, saying, "I can't skate. I can't." She propped her right foot up on the judges' table, claiming a lace had broken, she hadn't been able to tie it correctly, and her boot was falling apart — not a bad metaphor for her life recently.

The officials were sympathetic and said she could skate later. But the bizarre circumstances were familiar enough to make reporters scurry to their notes and refer to a pattern of weird stuff like this that had "happened" to Tonya before: At one competition in 1993, her dress burst apart. At another, her blade fell apart. Here's what Tonya Harding's reputation has come to: The buzz on everyone's lips was, Did she cut the lace herself? Louis Stong, the coach of Josee Chouinard, the Canadian skater who was forced onto the ice earlier than expected as a result of Tonya's behavior, said disgustedly, "We knew she'd do something." At the moment Tonya has no more credibility than, say, Jeff Gillooly.

Some 35 minutes later — smack dab in prime time now for a happy CBS — Tonya came out for her do-over, and this time she was composed. There was no sense of panic, none of that nervous licking of her lips. Tonya stood in front of her coach, Diane Rawlinson, who repeated, "Go for the gold," though they both knew there was no gold possible. Tonya's reception was frosty. But she cajoled some of the crowd back with a good, clean program. And as Tonya finished, and heard their honest, lusty cheers, she took some extra bows, made some extra finger-points and waves, held forth out there for some extra time, swimming in their applause — understanding, surely, that with what awaits her in Portland, this might be the last applause she will hear for quite some time.

With Tonya finally gone, the serious competition could start. Nancy was in first place, and on this scorecard at least, did nothing to lose it. She was as elegant as ever. She made every jump, landing in such complete control it seemed she skated on velvet. By the time Nancy got to her last move, a whirling spin in the middle of the ice, the largely American crowd was standing and clapping for her. It was like the last, triumphant scene of a movie. There was no doubt the gold medal was hers. What a courageous comeback she'd made from that deranged attack in Detroit.

But judges never confer a title with four skaters to go — they don't want to read a headline like "Dewey Beats Truman." They left the doors open for Oksana Baiul and Surya Bonaly. And Baiul, who is as natural and engaging and flirty a performer as skating may have ever seen, camped her way right through.

Kerrigan is a great skater with a great story. Baiul is a great performer with a great story. You think Tonya's had a tough life, get a load of Baiul's. She is a 16-year-old Ukrainian orphan. She lives with her coach, who hoses down the ice rink in Odessa because they have no Zamboni. She even closed out Nancy in the category of: Sympathetic Injury Closest To The Competition. Nancy was whacked 50 days ago; she's been fine for weeks. Just two days ago, Baiul took three stitches when she was cut after she collided with another skater in practice. If Kerrigan's life is a miniseries, Baiul's is a feature film.

Baiul is a different type than Nancy, who is elegant and sophisticated, but keeps herself at oddly cold, patrician distance from her audience. She doesn't seem to love what she's doing. Baiul's a sprite out there, an expressive, instinctive entertainer who works at connecting with the judges and the crowd. Plus, she skates to show tunes! Judges love show tunes. Baiul skated to "West Side Story," and "Carousel" and "A Chorus Line" and "My Fair Lady" and "The Sound of Music." Kerrigan skated to Neil Diamond. No contest.

You can argue about how Baiul beat Nancy — because the decisive scoring was in the technical program, and it's hard to imagine how Baiul could have been better technically than Kerrigan. But you can't argue that Baiul has something special on the ice, something vibrant and fresh and thoroughly captivating. In a conversation that took place before the figure skating competition started, Scott Hamilton said, "Usually the Olympic champion is the one who has the most to offer the sport in the next four years." It's hard to imagine Oksana Baiul, at 16 and just coming into greatness, not fitting that bill.

Because of the mysteries and vagaries of judging, the crowd had no idea who had won this competition until long after it ended. They probably assumed that Nancy had won; certainly it seemed she had held on. But no final placings were ever flashed. Workmen rolled out a carpet, and set up a victory stand for the medal ceremony, but nothing was said for the longest time. Nobody knew what was happening — maybe Tonya had demanded to skate yet again.

Eventually, Baiul was announced as the gold medalist, and the crowd — that mostly American crowd — cheered. If they didn't complain, why should we?

It's my guess that after the way Kerrigan skated she wouldn't have expected to be wearing a silver medal, and hearing somebody else's anthem. But she bore it well. The people close to her say her smile was genuine, and she was delighted that she had skated so well. Afterward, she helped Baiul down from the platform and put her arm around her waist and gently led her off the ice. To the best of our knowledge Tonya Harding had already left the building.

© Copyright 1994 The Washington Post Company

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