Skating Loses Innocence With Attack on Kerrigan

After being dealt a blow, skating world will bounce back, analysts say

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

ONCE upon a time, female figure skaters glided across the ice to become the nation's princesses.

This year, the fairy tale has been suspended as Americans watched a different side of the sport: Three men have been arrested for the Jan. 6 assault in Detroit on skater Nancy Kerrigan. It seems that there are daily revelations about Tonya Harding, the troubled winner of the United States Figure Skating Championships in progress at the time of the attack. (Sports column, Page 15.)

Ms. Harding said Sunday she played no role in the attack in which Ms. Kerrigan's knee was clubbed. Her lawyer, Dennis Rawlinson, said she had no knowledge of the plot. Harding said she was ``shocked and angry'' that anyone close to her might be involved. Her ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, also denied a part in this ``bizarre and crazy event,'' his lawyer, Ron Hoevet, said Sunday.

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No charges have been filed naming Mr. Gillooly or Harding in the attack that forced Kerrigan's withdrawal from the championships. But Harding's bodyguard, Shawn Eckardt, has been charged with two other men.

``A major event like this definitely changes the whole scope: [Figure skating] is not as innocent as it was before,'' says Lynnore Lawton, communications director for the Women's Sports Foundation, which represents female athletes.

The loss of innocence has left commentators and analysts trying to put the event in perspective. ``It is an attack on society,'' says Chuck Foster, United States Olympic Committee secretary and an International Skating Union judge. He calls it ``unfortunate'' but random.

However, others believe it is due to an overemphasis on winning. ``We are constantly looking at the result, the result, the result,'' says Paul Vogel, director of the Michigan State University Institute for the Study of Youth Sports in East Lansing, Mich.

If results net an Olympic gold, an athlete may get product endorsements and contracts worth millions of dollars.

In figure skating, there have been estimates that if Kerrigan wins next month in Lillehammer, Norway, it could be worth $5 million to $10 million. Harding, after winning the US championships, told reporters she wasn't thinking about the gold, but rather ``dollar signs.''

Other medal winners have also been able to cash in. For example, Kristi Yamaguchi signed a contract to promote raisins.

One reason why bucks are so big in skating is its popularity, particularly among women. ``It has one of the largest followings of any amateur sport - it is pleasing to watch for artistry and athletics, there is something for everyone,'' says Pam Robinson, executive director of the Indiana/World Skating Academy and Research Center in Indianapolis.

``There is something magical about the sport, just watching these kids doing fantastic things on a thin blade'' like triple Lutzes, Ms. Lawton says.

The large following has also insured that ``It has been a good [TV] sport. Just look at the ratings,'' Mr. Foster says. Last year, ABC had a 10 market share for the US championships. This year, with the Kerrigan attack on front pages, viewership soared to a 14.1 rating. (The Super Bowl gets about a 30-plus rating, or more than 100 million viewers.)

This has not been lost on CBS, which will broadcast next month's Winter Olympics. Now, the network says it plans to broadcast an exhibition featuring Kerrigan before the Games begin. CBS will also follow her rehabilitation on ``Eye to Eye With Connie Chung.''

Recently, figure skating has also broadened its appeal. Ms. Robinson says it is fairly common for skaters to come from a blue-collar family. This is true for Kerrigan, whose father is a welder, and Harding, who skates in the morning and sells potatoes in afternoons at a mall.

The children of blue-collar workers go to inexpensive public skating rinks. But once they show talent, the costs of getting a coach and competing soar. ``If the kids have talent, the parents quickly move them to where the coaches are,'' Foster says.

Since the attack, the skating world has closed ranks, preferring not to comment on the event at this time. Analysts and former champion skaters themselves- such as Scott Hamilton, Peggy Fleming, and Dick Button - did not respond to interview requests made through the networks they work for.

Lawton predicts the skating world will bounce back. But she says it may not be the same in the future. ``Things are very gray now, not black and white any more.''

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