Tuesday, January 6, 1997
Minus Tonya, skating lacks drama

The Cincinnati Enquirer

PHILADELPHIA - It is the mundane that matters now. Instead of sex and violence, the U.S. Figure Skating Championships will be dominated this time by hushed talk of tender toes and riveting questions about quadruple jumps.

Where have you gone, Tonya Harding? And wouldn't skating be better off if you were still around?

This is unthinkable, of course. Four years after conspiring to injure her chief American rival, Tonya Harding has less chance at reinstatement than even Peter Edward Rose. Yet you cannot explain the sport's remarkable surge in popularity and prosperity without acknowledging its debt to the diva of disfigure skating.

Without Tonya Harding, Nancy Kerrigan was about as exciting as escrow: Cold, shallow, self-absorbed and whiny. Because of Harding, and her hapless hit men, skating achieved record television ratings at the Olympics of Lillehammer, and has since enriched nearly everyone associated with the sport. Nancy Kerrigan finished second in Lillehammer, but has made at least $13 million as America's favorite victim.

Tonya Harding did for skating what The Latest Line did for pro football: She made it meaningful to people who had no inherent interest in the proceedings. With one swing of a metal bar, Kerrigan conspirator Shane Stant did more to raise skating's profile than all of Dick Button's breathless superlatives.

TV people notice

''The men who make decisions at the networks started watching Tonya and Nancy for the tabloid aspect,'' says Brian Boitano, the former gold medalist. ''When they saw and realized the popularity of the sport . . . then they said, 'Whoa, this is great.' The popularity didn't grow per se, but there are more things on TV because men who are in TV have realized that it makes money.''

When Kerrigan and Harding competed for the first time in the ladies short program in Lillehammer, the broadcast earned a 48.5 rating and a 64 share.

Skating, too, will have difficulty in duplication. Nothing that happens this week at the CoreStates Center is likely to approach the level of intrigue achieved four years ago.

This week's competition will be primarily concerned with projecting Tara Lipinski and Todd Eldredge as legitimate gold prospectors and, secondarily, with revealing the severity of the stress fracture in Michelle Kwan's big toe.

Barring a more serious injury, America's three ranking skaters all will compete next month in Nagano. The U.S. Figure Skating Association picks its Olympic team in part on performance at nationals and in part on career achievement. Though this approach has the virtue of rewarding consistency over one-night wonders, it also tends to deduct from the drama and spirit of open competition.

No more soap operas

Herein lies another argument for Tonya Harding. She is one of those rare athletes whose premeditated actions are as strange as her spontaneous reactions. This was a woman who was reduced to tears by a shredded shoelace and yet evinced no emotion when her wedding night video gained national distribution. In short, a real piece of work.

Skating currently has no other character who comes close. Nicole Bobek has inherited Harding's role as the rebel of the rinks because of her general lack of conformity and perpetual changing of coaches, but Bobek is to Harding as Pat Boone is to Ozzy Osbourne.

Harding has skated only once publicly since she left Norway - an ill- considered exhibition at a minor-league hockey game last year in Reno, Nev. She skated for two minutes, and was booed throughout. She may be interviewed with Kerrigan during a special to be shot Friday in Colorado, but producers have so far excluded her from the skating segments because of an ''informal boycott'' by the other participants.

This is a mistake. Maybe Tonya Harding deserves to be demonized, but she shouldn't be shunned. Sometimes a bad girl is good for business.

Complete coverage of U.S. Figure Skating Championships from Associated Press