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Harding, Kerrigan are linked forever by skating incident

Tonya Harding admitted she knew people around her were involved in the Nancy Kerrigan attack and didn't tell authorities.

By BRUCE LOWITT

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 29, 1999


It had every ingredient you could imagine: a potential America's sweetheart (Kerrigan); her scheming, hard-edged, jealous rival (Harding); money ($6,500 in promised payoffs, millions in future endorsements); the Olympics, the FBI, plea-bargaining, convictions, tears of joy and sorrow -- and a gigantic media horde recording every twist and turn.

Moments after practice in Detroit's Cobo Arena for the National Figure Skating Championships and a berth on the U.S. Olympic team going to Lillehammer, Norway, Kerrigan was whacked across the right knee. "Why? Why? Why?" she sobbed as her father picked her up and carried her into a medical facility at the arena.

Why? Because someone wanted her out of the competition. That someone was Jeff Gillooly, Harding's ex-husband. He hired the attacker, and the plan worked -- briefly. Kerrigan couldn't skate; Harding won the championship.

By Jan. 17 Kerrigan was back on the ice and was named on Jan. 31 to the Olympic team.

Harding knew people around her were involved and didn't tell authorities. On Jan. 27, she admitted it publicly and pleaded to stay on the team. Meanwhile, the alibi for Gillooly, the attacker and the man who drove the getaway car unraveled when the FBI got involved.

On Feb. 9, Harding filed a $20-million lawsuit to block the U.S. Olympic Committee from removing her from the team. Three days later, the USOC said she could stay; she dropped the suit.

In Norway, the media couldn't get enough of the drama, with headlines such as "Beauty Crushes the Beast" (Norway's Dagbladet) and "Few Tears, No Blood as Snow White Beats Poison Dwarf" (The Irish Times) after Kerrigan finished first and Harding 10th after the short program.

Seats to the figure skating finals went for $1,000. Oksana Baiul of Ukraine won the gold medal. Kerrigan got the silver. Harding stopped after 45 seconds and skated, crying uncontrollably, to the referee's stand to show them a broken boot lace. The referee said she could start again four skaters later. Harding finished eighth.

The TV ratings were the highest ever for an Olympic broadcast, and the sixth-highest of all-time. It drew the fourth-largest audience in TV history. And when Kerrigan hosted Saturday Night Live three weeks later, the show got its highest rating in six years.

But the nation and the world that had rallied around Kerrigan discovered -- within minutes of the end of the competition -- a different face than her toothy, smiling one.

She complained the judges hadn't noticed how flawless her performance was and that they'd missed Baiul's mistakes.

When the medal ceremony was delayed because no one knew the Ukranian national anthem, Kerrigan blamed it on Baiul, saying (privately, she thought, but with live microphones nearby), "I don't know why they're bothering reapplying her makeup. She's only going to start crying again."

And after skipping the closing ceremonies to be in a parade at Disney World, her $2-million sponsor, Kerrigan, riding on a fire engine with Mickey Mouse, complained (again without knowing she could be heard): "This is dumb. I hate it. This is the most corniest thing I have ever done."

She married her agent, with whom she'd had an affair when he was married (but separated). In 1996, she gave birth to a son and pretty much disappeared from public view. Harding also faded into obscurity.

In 1998, Kerrigan and Harding cashed megabuck checks to appear together for a network television interview called Breaking the Ice.

Kerrigan and Harding might as well be Chang and Eng, joined at the hip. Like Abbott and Costello, Sears and Roebuck, Bonnie and Clyde, no one thinks of one without the other.


-- Information from Times files was used in this report.

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