Winter Olympics / Ice Skating: US gripped by the ice queens: David Usborne reports from Washington on the popular televising of a Cold War drama

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The Independent Online
ALMOST HALF of America may have been on the edge of its collective sofa yesterday to watch the showdown on ice between Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding but, for most, satisfaction only came a full six hours after it was all over.

All through these Olympics there has been a sense of virtual unreality about the coverage provided by the CBS network. There is nothing to be done, of course, about the six-hour time gap between the United States and Norway, but the time dislocation has been compounded by the decision to deny viewers of all the best action until evening prime- time, starting only at 8 pm.

And so it was again last night. Those unable to contain their curiosity could tune to other TV stations to get the result of the Harding-Kerrigan contest but without the benefit of pictures. Except for those with access to specialised sports channels on cable, there was no choice but wait until the CBS evening Olympics programme actually to see what happened.

CBS, which bought the exclusive broadcast rights to the Lillehammer Olympics for dollars 295m ( pounds 204m), has come in for considerable criticism for embargoing action pictures from the Games, but the tactic seems to be working. Even before last night, these Games were breaking all viewership records. And the expectation was that last night - delay or no delay - as many as 100 million Americans would tune in to watch Harding and Kerrigan. It might turn out to have been the most watched sporting event in US history, beyond even Super Bowl levels.

Last night marked the latest climax in the media frenzy that has continued unabated ever since it first emerged that the attack on Kerrigan on 6 January was masterminded if not by Harding then by those close to her. Barely a day has passed since the Games began without either Harding or Kerrigan or both dominating the front pages or the evening current affairs shows.

Nor is there any sign of a let- up. Even the commercial breaks last night were dominated by a Reebok advertisement featuring Kerrigan. Four books are meanwhile in the works as well as several TV movies. The biggest cash deal so far has apparently gone to Kerrigan, who is reported to have signed a deal with Disney to appear in a film and to make Disney theme park appearances.

Only yesterday were some quarters of the American press beginning to prepare the public for the possibility that maybe, just maybe, neither Harding nor Kerrigan will make it on to the medals podium in Lillehammer. As the newspapers began finally to take a look at the other possible winners, the ironic headline on the USA Today story read: 'Harding, Kerrigan. . . oh, and those 'other skaters'.'