Where the Action Is

AS world-class athletes compete in Lillehammer, Norway, their awesome skills serve to remind viewers what the Olympics is really all about - and how its inherent drama transcends the Harding-Kerrigan case.

The media focus on figure skaters Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding is probably inevitable. After Ms. Kerrigan was attacked and Ms. Harding's alleged connection to the assault was debated, their roles as Olympic teammates became the stuff of legend. A media frenzy ensued, as seen in plans for TV movies, which rely heavily on ``fact-based'' storylines for often soap opera-like plots. Kerrigan - who has acquitted herself admirably through all this - is scheduled to appear March 12 as the improbable host of NBC's comedy show ``Saturday Night Live,'' where she will share the spotlight with stars like singer Aretha Franklin.

With Harding now in Lillehammer sharing a practice rink with Kerrigan, the tension heightens. News crews are following her almost continuously, as if the women's figure-skating event did not boast a dazzling field of other competitors, like the Ukraine's 16-year-old Oksana Baiul - one of the favorites to win the gold - whose own life story reads like a film script.

Yet the medium's true function is performed not in its breathless, sometimes seamy fixation on Harding, but in its coverage of the Games themselves. CBS's five or more hours of Olympics programming each day is reaching huge numbers of viewers. Last Sunday, for instance, some 82 million Americans saw at least some of the Olympics on that network. On the cable channel TNT, although the numbers are much smaller, live coverage of hockey and other events is giving viewers additional options.

In these and other sports, the sight of athletes at their finest hour makes for powerful drama. One example is US skier Diann Roffe-Steinrotter's unexpected gold medal in the Super G competition on Tuesday. Another is the heartbreak of speedskater Dan Jansen, who had hoped to make up for his lost bid for the gold during the 1988 Calgary Games.

For each of hundreds of individuals, in fact, the Olympics is the pinnacle of their young lives, a time bursting with courage, suspense, and sometimes fierce emotions. It's enough to make you turn your attention away from the Harding story toward where the action really is.

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