Skater protests her innocence: The Winter Olympics hopeful is now skating on thin ice, writes Phil Reeves in Portland, Oregon

THE investigation into the attack on the leading US figure-skater Nancy Kerrigan is overshadowed by one unpleasant and difficult issue: should prosecutors believe the testimony of a confessed conspirator with whom they have struck a lenient plea bargain in return for his co-operation?

Last night Tonya Harding, Ms Kerrigan's rival in the US Olympic squad, was continuing to maintain her innocence in the face of a 60-page statement by her former husband, Jeff Gillooly, who says that she was a fellow plotter and that she gave the final go-ahead for the attack. Ms Kerrigan suffered a bruised leg after being hit with a metal baton by a hitman after coming off the ice from a practice session for the US Figure Skating Championships in Detroit on 6 January.

An examination of FBI documents reveals that the allegations against Ms Harding, which have jeopardised her place in the US Olympic team, centre on an extraordinary meeting on 28 December at a house in Portland, Oregon, at which the plotters discussed how to cripple Ms Kerrigan.

The meeting was attended by Shawn Eckardt, Ms Harding's hefty bodyguard, Mr Gillooly and two hitmen, Shane Stant and Derrick Smith. According to Mr Gil looly's statement to the FBI, they discussed how to carry out the attack. Mr Gillooly, 26, claims there was talk of cutting Ms Kerrigan's Achilles tendon, but it was deemed too difficult. One suggestion was that she should be shot with a sniper's rifle but it was quickly ruled out; another was to run her off the road.

'Derrick said he had a guy in mind . . . a martial arts expert,' Mr Gillooly told investigators. 'Derrick said this guy could break Kerrigan's leg with a 'short kick to the long bone' so she could never skate again. Someone suggested breaking Kerrigan's kneecap.'

The motive seems clear: with Ms Kerrigan out of the championships in Detroit, Ms Harding stood to win the competition and with it extra sponsorship. According to Mr Gillooly, she was also embittered by what she saw as a bias against her by the US figure-skating establishment.

After 45 minutes Mr Gil looly emerged from the meeting having agreed to spend dollars 2,000 ( pounds 1,300) on a money-back guarantee from the three thugs that Ms Kerrigan would be crippled badly enough to stop her from competing.

It was then that, Mr Gillooly alleges, Ms Harding became crucially involved. He told FBI investigators she dropped him at the meeting and afterwards picked him up. As they drove away in his truck they allegedly discussed the plot. He recalled her laughing when he mentioned the money-back guarantee. He told her that he thought they 'should go for it'. She replied: 'Okay.'

And - he claims - her participation went further. She allegedly wanted the assault to be carried out on New Year's Eve, and complained when it did not happen, demanding the dollars 2,000 back. He says she also made telephone calls to find out Ms Kerrigan's practice schedule and provided a picture of her that was passed on to the hitmen.

What then happened is not in question. Days later, Ms Kerrigan was attacked in Detroit. Both Shane Stant, the 22-year-old hitman, and Derrick Smith, 29, his getaway driver, made statements to the FBI confessing their involvement.

Mr Stant, who was wearing paramilitary clothing and armed with a police-style baton, remembers striking the skater on the right leg with a 'glancing right blow' before fleeing. Shortly afterwards, the television pictures of an injured Ms Kerrigan wailing 'why, why, why?' were transmitted around the world.

The critical issue now is whether prosecutors and Olympic selectors believe Mr Gillooly. Ms Harding has vehemently denied his allegations. It is all part, she says, of a repeated pattern of abuse.

There are good reasons for scepticism. Mr Gillooly, an unemployed warehouseman, has struck a plea bargain in which he has agreed to testify against Ms Harding in return for a light sentence for racketeering: two years in prison and a dollars 100,000 fine (the maximum sentence was 20 years).

His testimony, if he gets the chance to give it, will be tainted by the suspicion that it was in his interests to turn in the skater. Furthermore, in a contradictory statement to the FBI in which she admitted lying, Ms Harding implicated her ex-husband. He made no secret that this was why he informed on her, before embarking on a campaign to get her thrown off the Olympic team.

There is no doubt that the scandal is both dividing and mesmerising America. Television and radio stations have been inundated with callers, both for and against the embattled skater. The debate concentrates on three questions:

Should Ms Harding, the

23-year-old skater who rose from blue-collar roots in Oregon to become the sequined queen of the ice, be denied her lifetime dream of an Olympic gold medal - even before she has been charged, let alone tried for any offence?

Should she be banned from the US team for what amounts to unprofessional conduct? After all, she has admitted failing to report information to the authorities about a plot against a sporting colleague.

Or should she be allowed to compete? 'All Tonya is asking for is her measure of fairness and jurisprudence that is represented by every one of the team members who will be wearing the United States flag on their uniforms,' said her lawyer, Robert Weaver.

A panel of officials appointed by the US Figure Skating Association has convened to decide whether she should go to Norway. But few doubt that - whether innocent or not - her hopes of Olympic glory are on increasingly thin ice.

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