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  Overseas, Tonya's Flaws Represent Her Country's

By T.R. Reid
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 6, 1994; Page C1

TOKYO — You think you're obsessed with Tonya Harding? You ought to come over to this side of the Pacific.

All over Asia, people are completely fascinated with the U.S. Olympic figure skating scandal. This is partly due to the powerful melodramatic pull of a real-life mystery story amid the glamor of world-class sport. Beyond that, though, the Tonya Harding case has proven irresistible because it seems to confirm all the worst stereotypes that people overseas love to hold about America.

Viewed through the prism of the feisty Asian sports newspapers — never reticent about reporting on the darker side of U.S. society — the assault-on-ice is just another example of modern-day America at work: a country where the concept of fair play lost out long ago to sheer greed; a country where violence emerges as the solution to every problem; a country where even an ice skater nowadays dare not go anywhere without a pair of burly bodyguards and a battalion of lawyers.

Lately, the overseas image of America, drawn from a number of recent trials, has focused on the idea that our country is a place where you can do whatever you want — and get away with it.

You can kill your parents while they're eating ice cream in front of the TV. You can ravage your wife. You can maim your husband. You can pull out a gun big enough to kill a grizzly bear and blow the life out of an innocent 16-year-old foreign exchange student who rings your doorbell on Halloween. You can do any of those things and then find an American jury that will let you get away with it.

For the most part, this is a grotesque parody of the United States, probably inspired in large part by resentment and jealousy of a country that now stands as the military, economic and cultural colossus of the world.

But that dangerous, decadent America — a country where no bad deed goes punished — is the America that the foreign media love to portray. And if, despite yesterday's unanimous finding by a U.S. Figure Skating Association panel that there are reasonable grounds to pursue a disciplinary hearing against her, Tonya Harding gets to represent America on the U.S. Olympic Team, she will go to Norway as the personification of that America.

Like other world-class skaters, Tonya Harding devoted huge chunks of her life to the hard work of perfecting her skills. With dedication and diligence, she overcame personal and athletic difficulties. She developed a style that combines agility and power to a degree that few skaters anywhere can match. If it stopped there, Americans could be proud to have her represent us in Norway.

But Harding also developed an acute sense of victimhood. If anything went wrong, it was always somebody else's fault. She was always being cheated. She made that point over and over in interviews, and it came through loud and clear to the mugs and ex-cons she surrounded herself with. Much like Henry II ("Who will free me from this turbulent priest?"), she set the train of violence in motion, then denied responsibility when those around her took the hint.

To some foreign media, that flight from responsibility is the most American thing about the whole sordid business.

"The Tonya Harding case helps us to understand," a reporter on Japan's TBS-TV network declared breathlessly one night last week, "what a big difference there is between the United States and Japan in the concept of personal responsibility."

The Japanese can't resist comparing Harding to their own favorite skater, Midori Ito, who was Asia's greatest hope in the 1992 Winter Olympics. Like Harding, Ito is a muscular, dynamic skater better known for athletic prowess than lithesome grace. Like Harding, Ito mastered the triple axel, hoping that would be her ace against taller, more elegant competitors.

While her whole nation watched with bated breath, Ito launched an all-out drive at Albertville for the gold medal. In her final program, she tried not just one but two triple axels; she hit one perfectly and missed the other. The effort proved good enough to edge past one American competitor — a graceful brunette named Nancy Kerrigan — but Ito still ended up in second place, behind America's Kristi Yamaguchi.

When the medals were awarded, Ito stepped before the cameras to speak to the TV audience back home. She gave her countrymen a deep, apologetic bow. "I humbly apologize," she said. "It was my fault. I just messed up."

Compare that to Tonya Harding's regular chorus of "I wuz robbed!" when things don't go her way, and you can see why Japan believes there's a "big difference" when it comes to personal responsibility.

In fact, one of the big differences at work is determining the level of responsibility that Harding should be held to.

Many Americans, judging from opinion polls, have decided that Harding should be entitled to a spot on the U.S. team unless she meets the criminal definition of responsibility — that is, unless she's proven guilty of something covered by the criminal law, she's innocent enough to represent the United States in the Olympics.

"Innocent until proven guilty" is one of the majestic glories of American jurisprudence. Enshrined in our law by men who knew the terrors of the Star Chamber and the royal bill of attainder, it was designed to protect an individual's liberty and property against the unjust whims of governmental power.

But this minimal standard was not designed to confer honor, privilege or the right to repre-sent the United States on the world stage. "Not yet indicted" may be the appropriate criterion for deciding whether or not somebody ought to be in jail, but the picking of America's Olympians has traditionally involved something more than this bottom-of-the-barrel test. The Olympics involve concepts like teamwork, fairness and responsibility.

Figure skating is called an "individual" sport, but at the Olympic level it is anything but. Any world-class skater has a team of coaches, assistant coaches, choreographers, costume designers, media advisers, managers and even, God forbid, bodyguards. The skater is the head of the team, and if the team wins, the skater quite fairly gets the credit. By the same token, if the team cheats, as Harding's team did, it seems only fair that the skater should bear the responsibility.

If an athlete is given an unfair advantage over her competitors, that is normally enough to keep her out of the game. When they give those random drug tests at the Olympics, nobody asks whether the athlete knowingly took the drugs. If you have an unfair advantage because of steroids, you're out — even if you insist that you didn't know what your coach was stirring into the oatmeal.

Tonya Harding's team got an unfair advantage in a reprehensible way — through deliberate violence against a competitor. She knew about it — at least after the fact — and lied to cover it up.

Now some people argue that this is irrelevant unless it can be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that Harding knew beforehand the dirty tricks her team employed to help her win. Whether or not Harding had "prior knowledge" may make a difference to a grand jury. In Olympic terms — that is, in terms of sportsmanship — the point is irrelevant.

The most distressing argument against holding Harding responsible comes from a corps of eastern liberals who argue that it would be "elitist" to keep her off the U.S. team. This theory holds that Harding's real problem is her working-class background — that she's a victim of discrimination because she grew up poor.

In fact, that argument is itself an example of elitism run wild.

The sophisticated New York liberals who sat around the bar at Elaine's and decided Harding should be the object of their sympathy are really saying that folks who live in trailer camps in Oregon don't understand concepts like honesty and sportsmanship. She's only a poor girl from a broken home, the elitists say, so you shouldn't expect her to play fair, to tell the truth to the FBI, or to express regret about a fellow skater's misfortune.

In fact, most people in Oregon, like most Americans, understand perfectly well what fair play is all about. The scores of ordinary working-class Americans who will represent our country at the Olympics this month are people who have lived all their lives following the rules, telling the truth, and accepting the responsibility for their own actions.

But if Tonya Harding is permitted to wear the uniform with the American flag at Lillehammer, the foreign press won't pay any attention to all those sportsmen from the United States. For the world's media, the only American at the Olympics will be the one who seems to stand for the notion that in modern-day America you can do anything — and skate away scot-free.

T.R. Reid is Tokyo bureau chief of The Washington Post.

© Copyright 1994 The Washington Post Company

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