On The Ropes

SO HE WASN'T EXACTLY EDWARD VIII, renouncing his throne for "the love of a woman." And maybe she wasn't any Tammy Wynette "standing by her man." They've become something better: American originals. When the polar "truths" about the attack on figure-skater Nancy Kerrigan, uttered by Tonya Harding and her ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, finally collided last week, the finger-pointing, the public betrayals and the furious spin-controlling were a sorry mix of ugliness, pathos and unintended comedy.

This time it was Gillooly, trading in his brown leather jacket and frequent smirk for a double-breasted suit and the mien of a mercy seeker, whose story commanded the public's attention. First he pleaded guilty to one count of racketeering for his role in the attack on Kerrigan, then he sent a heartfelt "message for Tonya." It was delivered an hour later live on national television--in the grand ballroom of a Portland. Ore., hotel-by his attorney "He hopes," intoned Ronald Hoevet, "that [Tonya] will now do what he has done and move quickly to resolve the charges that will surely be brought against her."

In Hoevet's unusual post-plea performance, he took dead aim at Tonya's Olympic dream. "It would be unconscionable if Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan are on the same Olympic team," he said. That wasn't the last word. In an interview on 'A Current Affair," Gillooly said, "I still love Tonya." And since he hasn't had time to change that story, maybe he does.

Harding headed back to the practice rink, professing her innocence and clinging to the hope that she will retain her spot on the American Olympic team. On Saturday a U.S. Figure Skating Association committee found there were "reasonable grounds to pursue disciplinary action" against Harding. The panel sent its findings to the U.S. Olympic Committee, which announced that it was "considering" convening an "administrative board" to pursue the matter. Changes on the women's skating team can be made until Feb. 21; to meet its own due-process rules, the committee will have to act quickly.

Harding maintained her outward cool. Each day more than a thousand fans turned out to cheer her practice sessions in Portland. Philip Knight, head of Nike, pledged $25,000 to mount a defense to keep her place on the Olympic team. And one of her lawyers, Robert C. Weaver Jr., stepped for-ward with his own pitch to the public. He decried Hoevet's "self-serving spin" as well as the "media whirlpool that threatens a system of jurisprudence that is hallowed in its traditions of fairness, deliberation and the presumption of innocence."

True enough, but what a show! According to polling by the Times-Mirror Press Center, 45 percent of Americans are paying ,'very close attention" to this scandal, numbers usually reserved for wars. By contrast, the fall of evangelist Jim Bakker scored 33 percent; Prince Charles and Princess Di's marital split, only 11 percent. Tonya and Nancy are a national obsession. The Bobbitts are again a one-note joke, Buttafuoco-the Baby Huey of mechanics -just a crutch for nights when Letterman limps.

This is, after all, a great tale, one that allows passionate opinions to be held. Should Tonya go to Nor-way or get chucked from the team? Could she not have known what Jeff was up to? Could any band of conspirators be that dumb? Even better, the stories kept changing, fertilizing themselves. it wasn't enough that Jeff's lawyer went live on CNN to denounce her -and in the process had his name emblazoned on every jailhouse wall in the Northwest -but the next day more "evidence" emerged: a stub of a check to Harding and handwritten notes referring to Kerrigan's practice rink, both retrieved from a restaurant Dumpster in Portland. Or, tired of speculating on the Jeff-Tonya relationship? By Friday another dark-haired fellow had emerged as Tonya's new male friend. (We're not making this up.) Even Bill Clinton poked his head up from the business of deciding Most Favored Nationhood and offered his opinion: Tonya goes to Norway unless she's busted.

Feeding this interest was the release of the Tonya papers: 130 pages of court documents detailing FBI interviews with Harding, Gillooly, the confessed "hit team" of Shane Stant and Derrick Smith, and other witnesses in the case. Rich in color and detail, the documents note everything from Stant's outfit when he clubbed Kerrigan black jeans, leather jacket and baseball cap, brown dress shirt and hiking boots to the sandwich Harding ate during her marathon FBI session-turkey, tomatoes, onions, cheese and extra mayonnaise on sourdough-to the small broken-heart tattoo on Gillooly's right arm.

According to the documents, the conspiracy was born of the most common figure skater's lament, unfair judging. Gillooly says that Harding was "very upset" by her fourth-place showing- she would later say publicly she was "jobbed"-in a December competition in Japan. Gillooly said it was Harding's hulking, bragging bodyguard Shawn Eckardt who first proposed eliminating her rival, whom Harding hadn't beaten on the ice since 1991. He said Harding warmed to the notion quickly, concerned only with how it would be done. "She asked how Eckardt would know anyone who could do something like that," Gillooly said.

Cut now to the morning of Dec. 28. Harding drives Gillooly to Eckardt's home. Gillooly said at first that he wasn't impressed with Eckardt's choice of accomplices, particularly the "poorly dressed" Stant. But Eckardt praised Stant as a man who once went to collect a debt from a Seattle arms dealer and "reached across a table in a restaurant, grabbed the arms dealer by the throat and asked where the money was." Another selling point: they agreed to attack Kerrigan for a paltry $6,000- and a "money-back guarantee" if they failed to knock her out of the championship.

When the meeting broke up, Gillooly said Eckardt was so excited he hugged him and exulted, "We're going to make a lot of money." According to the documents, Gillooly, Stant and Smith all say it was Eckardt who proposed that it would "be easier just to kill her"-perhaps with a sniper. They also say he suggested cutting Kerrigan's Achilles' tendon. Smith told authorities that he and Stant took the job only after they realized Eckardt and Gillooly would carry out the attack "no matter what." At least they could ensure, he said, that Kerrigan "was not hurt too badly."

After this meeting, Gillooly said he debated the merits of the plot with Harding. According to his version, Gillooly told Tonya that he felt "pretty good about it" but would leave the decision up to her. She deferred to him. He said, "I think we should go for it." She responded "something like 'OK, let's do it'." It's at this point that Gillooly says Harding began actively helping. She called an East Coast figure-skating writer to find out where Kerrigan trained and lived. And she called the practice rink-with a story about wanting an autographed poster-to ascertain Kerrigan's schedule. She even set the target: Kerrigan's right leg, her takeoff and landing leg.

After the attack on Jan. 6, Gillooly said, he was asleep at home in Oregon when Tonya called from Detroit, where the skating championships were held. "It happened," she said.

"What happened?"

She said, "Nancy--they did it."

Three days later-one day after Harding's skating victory-Gillooly said that he and Tonya stayed up concocting cover stories until she finally lamented, "We're never going to get out of here, are we?" Not with Eckardt hanging from their necks. Alternately flushed with excitement and pale with panic, the bodyguard began spilling his story, first to friends, then to the Feds.

Worried but needing to play out his hand, Gillooly agreed to meet Eckardt at Elmer's, a local pancake house. Jeff was so convinced that he'd be arrested, he left his wallet and watch with Harding. Eckardt was, in fact, wearing a wire, but Gillooly said nothing incriminating. Nor did Harding, at least at the start of her session with the FBI a week later. Questioned about her relationship with Gillooly, she said he never abused or threatened her-but did say that the couple "threw things ... and she slapped him once." But when an agent accused her of lying (the couple had been under surveillance), Weaver requested a private talk with his client. Before the FBI interview resumed, the lawyer issued a statement announcing Harding's reseparation from Gillooly. Tonya now offered a different story with Weaver explaining that she "had not been totally truthful"-partly out of fear of Gillooly. Though she now admitted believing Gillooly was involved, she still insisted she wasn't. She even retracted an earlier admission that she had called Kerrigan's practice rink. Told she had been accused of making the call, she said, "That's bulls---." When the session ended after more than 10 hours, Harding told investigators, "I just want to say, 'I'm sorry.' I hope everyone understands. I'm telling on someone I really care about."

Within a week Gillooly was confronted with Harding's statements and then made his deal. incredibly enough, Gillooly said the two met once more. Harding hugged him and supposedly said, "I really do appreciate you taking the blame for all of this." The next day he confessed to the FBI.

It's not over. No criminal charges have been brought against Harding, and the Olympics establishment is obviously tom about what it should do. Also waiting is the Innocent Victim -Kerrigan, who last week returned to the ice in a televised exhibition. Can the Games match the previews?

On the basis of what is officially known about Harding's connection to the attack on Nancy Kerrigan do you think:

She should not be permitted to skate in the Olympics under any circumstances.

She should not be permitted to skate only if she is charged with a crime.

She should be permitted to skate but must forfeit any medals if she is finally convicted.

Eleanor Holm: Barred from swimming at the 1936 Berlin Olympics because she drank champagne aboard the SS Manhattan en route to Europe. "The champagne girl" went on to become a success in show business.

Jim Thorpe: World-famous athlete and winner of two golds at the 1912 Games in Stockholm. Stripped of both medals because he had once played semiprofessional baseball.

Butch Reynolds: A failed steroid test kept him off the 1992 Olympic team. He denied drug use and sued, winning millions and an apology.