A Deal For Tonya

TONYA HARDING SEEMED TO BE getting most everything she wanted out of life without even having to skate for it. If she wanted fame, she had more than most ordinary Olympic champions could hope for, including a permanent escort of photographers to record her wild barefoot dash to the curb to rescue her pickup from a tow truck. If, as she proclaimed after winning the national championship last month, she was dreaming of "dollar signs," she got that wish also; well-informed reports put her payment for an appearance on the tabloid TV show "Inside Edition" at about $600,000. In her quest to be loved, she admitted to a little uncertainty that her bitter rival Nancy Kerrigan would welcome the hug she said she wanted to bestow on her in Norway. But then she revealed to CBS's Connie Chung that she was going to be adopted by the parents of her best friend Stephanie Quintero, giving her the thing she's always really wanted, "somebody to love me for me."

And as for the thing she most didn't want -- a criminal charge in the attack on Kerrigan, which her ex-husband and former bodyguard have admitted plotting -- numerous predictions that she was about to be hauled off in handcuffs turned out to be premature. Prosecutors last week said they expected to take no action until after the Olympics, removing at least one possible barrier to the thing she has said she wants most of all: an Olympic gold medal. "It's a lot of pressure," she said in a NEWSWEEK interview last week (below), "but I work better under pressure."

On Saturday night, she was given a chance to prove it. In a deal struck by her lawyers and those from the United States Olympic Committee, Harding won the right to skate next week in Lillehammer (page 44). She had sued the USOC to keep it from kicking her off the team, demanding $20 million in punitive damages. After a day of court hearings, and a day of dickering, both sides decided it would be simpler just to let her skate. This deal took pressure off the USOC, which had scheduled a disciplinary hearing against Harding for this week. It gave the Games a slim chance to become something besides the Tonya-and-Nancy story. And it set the stage for what could be the most watched sporting event in history: the televised finals of the ladies' figure skating on Feb. 25.

"Our team is a team now," said USOC spokesman Mike Moran. Perhaps, but more trouble was in the offing. Moran said that Kerrigan's camp had not been informed of the decision in advance -- announced at 1 a.m. Sunday in Lillehammer. And Nancy, who's been visibly relaxed and happy, may be more than a little perturbed if she has to share a dorm floor and practice rink with Tonya.

Just a few days earlier. things weren't looking so good for Harding. Her ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly had implicated her in the plot to cripple Kerrigan in Detroit -- an allegation she denies. Harding, evincing the indomitable spirit her fans admire so, fought back on three fronts: legal, public relations and cosmetic. Her advisers ended her long silence with several high-profile TV appearances; Chung reported Harding's pious, and never-before expressed, desire to apply some of her earnings "to set up a trust for Special Olympics children." (Rumors of a $250,000 deal to appear in Playboy were apparently exaggerated, though; a source at the magazine said that Harding had been sent "a letter that expressed, in a very general way, our potential interest in talking to her and maybe photographing her.") And perhaps not least, she replaced her businesslike ponytail with a fuller, more sophisticated and, above all, softer look that she proudly modeled for NEWSWEEK'S photographer, among many others.

This was, in sum, a week of old-fashioned American myth-making, operating at a very high and very obvious level. Her handlers produced a New Tonya as brashly as Richard Nixon reached for his wife's cloth coat and his little girls' dog, as nakedly as Bill Clinton offered up Hillary's plucky Tammy Wynette routine. But that's showbiz and no one is shocked when celebrities calibrate their images to fit their needs. The truth is that for the last month, myths have surrounded Tonya -- and Nancy, too -- that even pancake makeup cannot hide.

Take, for example, the popular notion that had Harding, as her stepfather James Golden said, been blessed with Kerrigan's beauty "she'd have been on top a long time ago and stayed there." In fact, Harding was once on top. In 1991 she won the national championship after becoming the first American woman to land a triple axel. No one back then suggested that third-place finisher Kerrigan's good looks would ever give her a chance against Harding's incredible leaps. It was Harding, not Kerrigan, who landed the national ad contracts with Texaco, the U.S. Postal Service and NutraSweet -- who headlined for ice shows and commanded upwards of $2,500 for personal appearances at local skating clubs. Harding's commercial options ended, her former agent Michael Rosenberg says, only after she became "controversial," which is a polite word for getting into tiffs -- like when Harding slapped another driver and bent her glasses during a traffic argument.

The reason Harding didn't stay on top was the serious decline in her on-ice performances. Beginning with the 1992 national championships in Orlando, Fla., what characterized Harding's skating programs was no longer big jumps but big spills. She took third in Orlando, finishing behind Kerrigan for the first time. At the Albertville Olympics, her practices were as painful to watch as they presumably were to perform. She repeatedly missed her trademark triple axel, almost always landing hard on her butt. It went no better in the competition; Harding finished fourth, while Kerrigan won the bronze.

Tonya could not afford to let her skills slip. She was never regarded as an artist on ice, so when she missed her jumps there was no there there. The judges noticed. In 1993 she didn't win a medal when Kerrigan won her first national title.

Another argument frequently proffered on Harding's behalf is that she has dedicated her entire life to realizing her Olympic dream. That's certainly true if it means she's been a skater -- and nothing but -- since she was 3 years old. But Harding's never demonstrated the singular commitment of a Kristi Yamaguchi, the California skater who won the ladies' gold medal in 1992. (And who, if she had not turned pro, would be favored to repeat this year.) Tonya has tended to combine her training with her carousing. Harding has not, for instance, stopped smoking despite an asthmatic condition that she often blames for her poor performances.

Harding had become the Roseanne Roseanadanna of skating: it was always something. One poor outing was blamed on a broken dress strap, another on a loose skate blade. In Albertville she showed up just three days before the competition, which proved to be not enough time for her to skate her best. This fall Harding missed a flight to Norway and a chance to train at the Olympic rink. She blamed the flare-up of an ovarian cyst.

Tonya's fans -- and a host of new instant figure-skating experts -- insist that her win at the Nancy-less Nationals in Detroit meant that, even had Kerrigan skated, Harding would have finished no worse than second and still made the American team. But that's not necessarily true. With Kerrigan a heavy favorite, the pressure on Harding would have been far more intense. She might have tried a triple axel rather than a safe double. In the past a fall on the triple axel threw her out of sync, upsetting the rest of her routine.

Of course, in the wake of Detroit, myths abound about Nancy as well. America's penchant for simplistic fairy tales has cast her as a skating princess who -- but for the evil machinations of others -- would be a prohibitive favorite to win the gold. In truth, Kerrigan, even had she won the Nationals, was at best slated to be a contender along with Ukraine's Oksana Baiul and France's Surya Bonaly. The skating world's most powerful memory of Nancy was formed in Prague last March when, as the favorite at the world championships, she skated in a seeming daze and wound up fifth. It was the worst showing by the top American woman skater in three decades.

Kerrigan rebounded this skating season, winning the prestigious Piruetten competition on the Olympic ice. But until she was attacked in Detroit, she was inevitably described in press reports as possessing a "fragile psyche." in the last month she has demonstrated anything but. "Nancy really is a lot stronger than anyone gives her credit for," said Mary Scotvold, who, along with her husband, Evy, coaches Kerrigan. Adding physical therapy to an exhaustive daily on-ice regimen of three separate 45-minute sessions, Kerrigan healed quickly. Three weeks after she was assaulted, Kerrigan skated what her coaches said was a perfect program in practice.

Nancy's most difficult adjustments have come off the ice. "My life is pretty much the same except I haven't been out much," Kerrigan told NEWSWEEK. "Everywhere I go people start following me. Right now I don't feel very free." Or likely very safe, though her older brother, Michael, shepherds her everywhere. His protective instincts are fierce. When Connie Chung, in a recent interview persisted with questions about Harding, Michael stepped in and ended the session midquestion.

Last week the Kerrigan camp decided to feed the media beast early and hope Nancy would be left in peace. On Saturday, just before the opening ceremonies in Lillehammer, about 1,000 reporters and photographers showed up for her opening press conference. Describing herself as feeling "wonderful," she turned serious when asked how she'll react if Tonya approaches her next week for a hug. "I don't know how I'm going to feel when I see her," she said. "I don't know. That's personal and between the two of us and not you guys." Maybe so, but there's a guy in the corner with a satchel full of Norwegian kroner waiting to pay someone to find out.