Ice Skating: Harding skirts the big issue: Mike Rowbottom on the beleaguered US figure skater's ordeal by press

THE media pack finally caught up with its quarry here yesterday as Tonya Harding faced the music - and squirmed. She was not the only one.

Girded by full make-up, a glassy smile and a personal mantra - 'I am here to follow my dream. . . This is a beautiful country. . .That is not an appropriate question' - the skater who faces charges of aiding and abetting last month's attack on her American rival, Nancy Kerrigan, strove to limit discussion to matters of training with a complete lack of success.

After a surreal section of prepared questions and answers - 'The media attention is great but I wish it could focus on other wonderful athletes who are here' - the storm broke.

Questioner number one got straight to the heart of things. Harding, he said, had lied about smoking, she had been accused of lying to the FBI, she had been reported as failing two out of three lie detector tests during the course of investigations into the Kerrigan affair. Why should anything she said be

believed?

''We are here to talk about skating,' Harding's coach, Diane Rawlinson, interjected.

But Harding could not avoid all of the wider issues. The topless pictures of her currently circulating in the international press - how did she feel about those?

'I am very upset and I am ashamed and I am embarrassed. If you were in my place, how would you feel?'

Had she and Kerrigan said anything to each other since they had both arrived for the Games?

'I have a great deal of respect for Nancy. We had a brief encounter. It was very positive. We just said hello. It's kind of a personal thing.'

Was it true that her sponsors, Nike, had contributed dollars 25,000 to her legal defence fund?

'Yes.'

Accepting that they could not

actually ask her whether or not she was guilty as charged, the American press tried to get her to talk about How She Was Actually Feeling. 'You are here. You have been smiling and waving. But what is going on inside you, Tonya?'

'I think that I need to be strong, that I need to focus on what I need to do and to follow my dream.' Oh well. Worth a try.

But wait. 'I just have to. It is my dream. I think God has helped me with half of my problems. He will hold the rest until this is over. Then I will be able to sit down and cry.'

For one moment, the occasion

afforded a glimpse of something approaching reality. A brief moment.

'Would you have come here if you had given the go-ahead for the attack?'

'That is not an appropriate question.'

Would she have submitted to such an ordeal by press had CBS not invested dollars 200m for exclusive Olympic coverage? That, perhaps, would have been a more appropriate question.

(Photograph omitted)

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