Sunday, February 8, 1997
Olympics thrive on conflict

BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

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NAGANO, Japan - The Evil Empire is ended. The East German judge no longer exists. Tonya Harding has been banished. The Winter Olympics is running low on legitimate louses.

The ice and snow games have grown dangerously civilized in recent years, so much so that there's hardly anyone left to hate. The old Communist bloc is too splintered for cohesive Olympic conspiracies, and Iraq did not send a delegation to Nagano. Since the top female figure skaters are again aiming to be innocuous, the 18th Winter Games began with so little bad blood that it may be time for a transfusion.

Much as we appreciate Olympic competition, what we really crave is conflict. Though it may never be possible to duplicate the misguided mayhem that made Harding and Nancy Kerrigan the transcendent sports story of 1994, that ought to be the goal.

Where there is wrath, there are ratings.

That's the trouble with Michelle Kwan and Tara Lipinski. They're both world-class skaters, but their rivalry gives off about as much heat as asbestos.

''The only thing we have in common,'' Lipinski said, ''is we're going for the same thing - the Olympic gold medal.''

Neither Harding nor Kerrigan can claim a gold medal, but their shared history makes them a mighty valuable commodity. Thursday's Fox broadcast did not bring closure to their conflict, and could lead to more lucrative appearances by the two women. Any pea-brained promoter could see the potential in a Harding-Kerrigan grudge match, or better, a whole series of them.

Tonya has yet to admit her involvement in the attack on Kerrigan. Kerrigan has yet to absolve her of responsibility. The rift between the two skaters was responsible for the third-highest rated television program in history, and there is no reason to believe it could not still mean big box office.

''I would like to apologize again for being in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people,'' Harding told Kerrigan. ''If I would have known, I would have done anything I could to stop it. I say that from the bottom of my heart.''

Tonya's take on the whole sleazy episode is borrowed from the Pete Rose Excuse Book. She would have us believe she is simply a ''bad picker of friends;'' that her own hands are clean.

Harding's story is seriously undermined by the evidence, specifically her ex-husband's continued claims that she authorized injuring Kerrigan at the pre-Olympic U.S. Figure Skating Championships of 1994. Kerrigan has accepted neither Harding's apology nor her version of events.

''I am glad you moved on,'' Kerrigan said, conceding nothing, ''and I hope that you can find happiness and maybe children can learn from these mistakes.''

Fox reportedly paid Kerrigan in excess of $100,000 to share a stage with Harding. They did not pay her enough, evidently, to make peace.

It made for terrific television - a simmering and very public feud that might have ignited at any moment. It is the same formula Jerry Springer has exploited in turning daytime television into tag-team trauma. It is the kind of friction the 18th Winter Games might want to manufacture.

Juan Antonio Samaranch, President of the International Olympic Committee, joked recently that he might want to arrange a repeat of the Harding-Kerrigan fiasco in order to help hype Olympic telecasts. ''The attack, in a bizarre way, helped the sport,'' Kerrigan conceded. ''It brought awareness to the sport.''

People who had previously been apathetic about figure skating were drawn to the Harding-Kerrigan spectacle, and some of them got hooked. Imagine the impact if comparable conflicts could be arranged on the ski slopes, at the luge run, in Nordic combined. What would become of the biathlon if a couple of the skiing sharpshooters suddenly decided to take aim at each other? (Can't say for sure, but CBS would surely show it in prime time.)

We are kidding, of course. Violence has no place in the Winter Games, except perhaps in hockey and in negotiations with ticket scalpers. Still, the Olympic Truce can be taken too literally. Virtue needs villainy if only for the purpose of comparison.

Spats help sports to hold people's interest.

Columnist Tim Sullivan is covering the XVIII Winter Olympic Games for the Enquirer.

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