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  Harding-Kerrigan Plays Big in Norway

By Christine Brennan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 6, 1994; Page D1

LILLEHAMMER, Norway, Feb. 5 — They sit in a little booth at the end of the world, checking the credentials of journalists who come and go from the Main Press Center in the days before the opening of the Winter Olympics. They are security officers, young Norwegians who watch the sun drop behind the snow-capped mountains every afternoon around 4 p.m., turning the pristine white landscape first to purple, then to black.

Tonight, as they sat in the darkness in their quiet perch, a visitor knocked on the window. When they slid the glass open, the cold rushed in.

"I have a strange question for you," the journalist said. "Have you ever heard of Tonya Harding?"

They replied immediately.

"Yes," two of them said, practically in unison. "Of course."

One kept on talking.

"Even if she is not guilty, I think she should not come. Wouldn't that be the right thing to do?"

And so it is that in the farthest reaches on earth, in a tiny town of 23,000 preparing to host the 17th Winter Olympic Games, the Nancy Kerrigan-Tonya Harding saga has not gone unnoticed.

"It's been in absolutely every newspaper, on the sports pages, on television," said Oslo journalist Paul Heisholt. "What was the latest the other day, the accusations by her husband? The poor girl, whether she's guilty or not, how will she ever be able to put it all together to compete here?"

It is one of the ironies of these Games, which begin Saturday and run through Feb. 27, that a small, unsuspecting place like Lillehammer would find itself hosting one of the greatest controversies in sports history.

Yet, for all its charm and apparent naivete, Lillehammer and its people are quite wise to the ways of the world.

Tor Aune, the director of information and media operations for the Lillehammer Olympic Organizing Committee, was planning on using a 100-seat room for figure skating news conferences in Hamar. Now, he has changed his mind and has taken over the volunteers' cafeteria, which will seat 400.

"Figure skating was not going to be a big event for us," Aune said today. "It used to be, years ago, with Sonja Henie. But it's mostly a continental European and U.S. sport. All that has changed now. This has created all kinds of extra interest. A month ago, Norwegians knew the name of only one skater, Katarina Witt. Now, they know three: Witt, Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding."

And it's not just Norwegians who are yearning for news about the U.S. skaters. As U.S. Olympic Committee media officers Bob Condron and Gayle Plant were unpacking boxes in their office, scores of reporters popped in.

"The first 25 people stuck their head in the door and said, 'Anything new on Harding? When is she coming? When's the press conference?' " Condron said. "Everybody wants to know when the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan press conference is going to be. I've told them: 'I have no idea. You let me know.' "

It has reached the point where reporters from around the world stop in and ask simply about "Tonya" and "Nancy."

"They don't even have to say what sport they're in or what their last names are," Condron said.

All international journalists are not smitten by the story. After a media briefing Friday, International Olympic Committee Director General Francois Carrard was surrounded by a knot of 20 reporters. When Harding's name came up and Carrard started talking, the handful of U.S. journalists furiously scribbled into their notebooks, while the others stood with their arms by their sides, blankly staring at their American counterparts.

When Carrard finished, he looked up and laughed, "Tonya Harding ... Who is she?"

In all seriousness, he said it will not bother the organizers to have Harding, Kerrigan and the scandal dropped onto their Games like another couple feet of snow.

"Being Swiss," said Carrard, "it reminds me of some Swiss resorts, where you have big events involving celebrities happening in tiny places."

Aune went even further, mentioning the significant Norwegian influence in the recent Mideast peace negotiations.

"That brought the whole world up into our little corner of the world," he said. "We are used to this now."

Unlike some countries that don't have the same legal standards as the United States, Norway also presumes innocence until guilt is proven, so its citizens can relate to the U.S. debate.

"It's a bizarre story," said Vibeke Noreng, a 20-year-old student from Oslo who is working at the Games. "If she's done it, it's bizarre. Her husband has said she's done it. But if she's not guilty, she should come. We understand that."

Norwegians also understand figure skating, which gives them a leg up on most of the rest of the world. This, after all, is the homeland of the great Henie, who is the only woman to win three Olympic figure skating gold medals. It's also the birthplace of Axel Paulsen, who came to prominence in the 1880s.

Paulsen was the first skater to try a difficult 1 ½-revolution jump begun from a forward position and landed backward. In his honor, the jump was given his name: Axel.

World-class figure skaters now do it in two and three revolutions; the triple Axel, ironically enough, is the jump that Harding landed twice in 1991, but has fallen on ever since.

© Copyright 1994 The Washington Post Company

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