Olympic Decision Does Justice to Kerrigan

FOR two reasons, the decision to place figure skater Nancy Kerrigan on the United States Olympic team despite her absence in the qualifying competition couldn't have been easier. First, placing her on the Olympic team was the just solution, in view of the bizarre incident that forced her out of the competition - an attack in Detroit's Joe Louis Arena after a practice session. That in itself really gave American skating officials all the reason they needed to name Kerrigan, a bronze medalist in 1992, to the team. Second, an athlete doesn't usually get such special consideration, but Kerrigan's case was so extraordinary that it dictated unusual action. Her assailant has not been caught.

[The Oregonian newspaper in Portland, Ore., reported yesterday that the FBI is investigating allegations that the husband and bodyguard of figure skater Tonya Harding arranged last week's attack. Both men deny the allegations. Detroit police and FBI agents have questioned all skaters and coaches at the event.]

Even the potential downside to the Kerrigan decision - that only one skater competing in Detroit would fill the quota of two US Olympic slots in the event - worked out nicely. Michelle Kwan, the heartbreak kid in this case, was able to take the disappointment of being the runner-up to Tonya Harding in stride, partly perhaps because she is just a kid. Kwan is 13, which means that by the next Olympics four years from now in Nagano, Japan, she likely will be a serious medal contender. She is the women's alternate on this year's team.

The Kerrigan situation may point up the need for more flexibility in allowing certain athletes automatic entry into the Olympics. US skating rules generally preclude a competitor from the Olympic team who does not compete in the nationals or win a medal in the previous world championships (Kerrigan was fifth in '93). Reigning medalists and world-record holders should perhaps be exempt from Olympic qualifying, a system used successfully in golf.

Tennis players need seasoning

With some notable exceptions, male tennis players seldom make it into the sport's high-rank district until their 20s. In fact, according to a statistical study done by the International Tennis Federation, male players are unlikely to enter the top 100 until they are least 22. As a result, the ITF concludes, ``Coaches should be more patient in judging the success of [these] players.''

Mark Miles, the chief executive officer of the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), says that the depth of talent in men's tennis these days makes it difficult even for the best college players to make their mark.

The record proves his point. Only one collegiate champion during the last 10 years, 32nd-ranked Mikael Pernfors, appeared among the ATP's top 100 in the 1993 year-end rankings. Chris Woodruff, the latest player to win the college title once owned by Arthur Ashe, Jimmy Connors, and John McEnroe, is still looking to break under 300. Meanwhile, his three immediate predecessors - Steve Bryan, Jared Palmer, and Alex O'Brien - find themselves knocking on the door of double-digit rankings.

Barkley looks to politics

Charles Barkley, who is currently on the Phoenix Suns' injured list, keeps saying he's 99 percent sure that this will be his last season playing professional basketball. That is less surprising than one of his regularly stated retirement goals: to become governor of Alabama, his home state.

On the surface, that seems terribly far-fetched for a guy who has no known familiarity with politics or how government works. Nonetheless, Barkley is also a guy who believes fiercely in his abilities and it wouldn't surprise this writer to see Sir Charles, with some seasoning, achieve a degree of success in the political arena. He speaks his mind and sounds genuinely interested in helping the ``little guy'' - and we're not talking Spud Webb and Muggsy Bogues, the two shortest players in the NBA.

Small step in world relations

Table tennis, the sport once credited with facilitating a thaw in US-Chinese relations during the Nixon presidency (remember Ping-Pong diplomacy?), has been at the center of another historic development. This week, for the first time in international sports, Israelis met Palestinian athletes during a match at the Global Youth Table Tennis Championships in Tokyo.

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