A Long Shadow Falls on Skating

FIGURE skating has always been a genteel sport, a fact partly reflected in the tuxedos and formal wear worn by those handling television commentary. Violence of any kind is anathema to this civil niche in a sometimes violent athletic world. This fact, however, only serves to make the recent attack on skater Nancy Kerrigan, which has cast a pall over the sport, an act of almost inconceivable aberrance.

What happened to Kerrigan - a hit-and-run clubbing attack on her knee in Detroit after a practice session at the United States figure skating championships - is so shocking that reverberations clearly will be felt through next month's Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, and well beyond.

First, of course, athlete safety, always an Olympic priority, may receive even greater attention. Then, too, the skating focus of these Games, the first to establish an alternating schedule with the summer Olympics, may shift squarely onto the Kerrigan drama and off the performances of professionals such as Brian Boitano, Katarina Witt, Jayne Torvill, and Christopher Dean, who are returning to Olympic competition because of newly liberalized eligibility rules.

At this writing, three suspects in the Kerrigan case have been arrested, all at least tenuously connected to Kerrigan rival Tonya Harding. Harding won the US championship in Detroit in Kerrigan's absence, and many suspicions have been raised in the days since that Harding herself may have had knowledge of an insidious plot to disable her chief American competitor. (Kerrigan, by the way, has returned to the ice and looks to be on her way to a full and rapid recovery.) Reports have even surfaced that police in Portland, Ore., where Harding lives, hold unsealed warrants for the arrest of Harding and Jeff Gillooly, her ex-husband with whom she has reconciled.

Nevertheless, Harding and Gillooly have vehemently denied any involvement, and no further arrests have been made. On Sunday, Harding's longtime coach, Diane Rawlinson, and her husband, Dennis, who is Harding's attorney, proclaimed Tonya's innocence in a press conference that was widely viewed as a clear signal that any attempts by US Olympic or figure skating officials to remove Harding from the US team would be fought in court.

In the search for perpetrators, the police, with the help of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, have arrested the alleged hit man, Shane Stant, the suspected getaway driver, Derrick Brian Smith, and burly bodyguard Shawn Eric Eckardt, who was not in Detroit, but reportedly was hired by Gillooly to provide protection upon Harding's arrival at the Portland airport.

According to the latest Associated Press report, Gillooly's lawyer Ron Hoevet says Eckardt was not actually Harding's bodyguard, but just a short-term security aide hired by Gillooly, who knew him from their elementary- school days. Eckardt has been portrayed by Hoevet as a man who has ``created a James Bond life for himself,'' claiming to have worked with a counterterrorism organization in Switzerland from 1984, when he would have been 16, to 1988.

Harding has recently spoken of her interest in the money associated with the gold medal.

Anyone who simply wished to prevent Kerrigan from skating in the Olympics so that Harding could cash in would seem naive. First, Kerrigan is only one contender for the gold medal and not perhaps even the most serious one. Kerrigan finished a disappointing fifth at last year's world championships in Prague, where teen phenom Oksana Baiul of Ukraine won. Witt, if she passes the final hurdle in making the German team, is another formidable competitor, as are France's Surya Bonaly and China's Lu Chen.

US Olympic officials don't officially have to submit their Olympic roster for Lillehammer until Jan. 31, and a lot can happen in this bizarre case between now and then. Everyone, of course, hopes for a quick resolution.

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