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  Spinning Her Wheels Into the Ground

By Thomas Boswell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 29, 1994; Page D1

ATLANTA — Tonya Harding doesn't care if she embarrasses the United States next month in Lillehammer. She doesn't care if an international celebration of sportsmanship is turned into a billion-voice debate over the shabby self-obsessed behavior of The Ugliest American. After all, look at it Tonya's way. She wants her medal.

Tonya says she wants to skate "for her country." But that's a joke. She wants to skate for Tonya and in defiance of her country. The hell with what is best for everybody else. Tonya does what's best for Tonya.

Tonya Harding doesn't care if she upsets and distracts the entire U.S. Olympic team in Norway. She knows that the best thing she could do for every member of that team would be to withdraw. Any decent person, knowing what was done to Nancy Kerrigan on her behalf, would understand that legal guilt is not the only issue. They would say: "I'm sorry for what people close to me did to Nancy. It would be inappropriate, and destructive to others, for me to insist on competing under these circumstances."

Instead, Tonya has hunkered down. She's shameless. She, and her mother, lawyer and advisers, think that they can use our legal system to bluff and badger U.S. and International Olympic officials into allowing her to turn the Olympics into her own soap opera.

Tonya has always wanted to be rich. But, just as much, she has always wanted attention. Maybe the millions of dollars in endorsements are gone. But Harding still has her chance for glory. If she gets to Lillehammer, no athlete ever will have been watched more intently by more people — and deserved that attention less. Tonya doesn't care about the zillions of hours of work that other U.S. athletes have put into preparation. She doesn't care about the attention — the ink — that they deserve to receive. All she cares about is her own hours of work, her own sacrifices, her own need for the spotlight.

Incredible as it seems, Tonya Harding doesn't even care if her presence on the U.S. Olympic team contributes to a poor performance by Nancy Kerrigan.

If Harding is on the U.S. team, she'll be in Kerrigan's face every day at practice and during competitions. What is Kerrigan going to think?

Who but Harding could ignore the incredible unfairness of this situation for Kerrigan? And who but Harding, knowing what she knows, would be crass enough to insist that, technically, it is her right to be on the same team?

Tonya Harding has no concept of how decent people act. A sense of common decency doesn't come from wealth or birth or education. It crosses all lines. Sometimes it seems that the most put-upon in society have the most keen sense of decency. Harding has endured plenty of hard knocks. But so have millions of people, in different ways. We're still responsible for our behavior.

It's a sad commentary on our "me first" society that we tie ourselves into ethical pretzels trying to justify Harding's selfishness. We say she has a "right" to keep pushing for the Olympics simply because it's in her self-interest and because she hasn't been convicted of a felony.

Is self-interest now our national god? If somebody pushes you aside and says, "Get out of my way. It's in my self-interest to go first," do we tolerate it? Do we say, "Go right ahead. Your behavior is certainly justified. After all, you're pursuing your self-interest."

Harding thinks that she has two problems: convincing the FBI that she shouldn't be arrested as a co-conspirator in the Kerrigan assault and then figure skating in the Olympics.

She had better figure out pretty fast that she has an even bigger problem. If she isn't careful, if she doesn't change her attitude in a hurry, she may be remembered — for the rest of her life — as one of the most hated and reviled athletes in American history.

If she doesn't think that a lasting place in national folklore as a villainess is worse than an FBI investigation or missing the Olympics, then she will spend a long time paying for her misjudgments.

Harding is obsessed with skating. She had better get a bigger picture frame. Nobody doubts that she's a good figure skater. But, at this point, who really cares how good she is? Her character is now the issue. And she can't save what's left of her reputation by skating, only by not skating.

If she is more involved in the assault than she has said, and fears she may go to jail for it, then she knows her skating future and her reputation probably are ruined. So, a moment on the Olympic ice is all that's left for her. She lost everything for it. So she might as well have it, bitter and filled with boos though it might be.

To me, it also seems that her current behavior is not what we would expect of an innocent person. If her ex-husband and that blimp of a bodyguard are the "brains" behind the caper, if Tonya really didn't know, then wouldn't she be genuinely appalled and saddened and ashamed? Wouldn't she do anything on earth to make it up to Kerrigan? Wouldn't she, most obviously, get out of Kerrigan's way and avoid the Olympics?

Tonya only has one smart play. Quit. Before U.S. Olympic officials kick her off on a sportsmanship technicality and stand the legal heat.

Even if she goes to the Olympics and isn't charged with any crime, she's still going to be despised by many. And she should be. Her legal innocence isn't going to change the other facts. Tonya's people confessed to whacking Kerrigan. Then Tonya turned the whole Olympics into a self-serving legalistic circus just so she could get her meaningless "opportunity."

Just because Tonya Harding may have a legal "right" to remain on the U.S. Olympic team doesn't mean that it is right. For her own good, she had better understand the difference. She can go to Lillehammer and skate as beautifully as Sonja Henie and still spend the rest of her life being hounded. Or, she can quit the U.S. Olympic team and begin the long, slow process of rehabilitating her reputation.

© Copyright 1994 The Washington Post Company

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