Winter Olympics: Lillehammer '94: Icy stars profit from soap opera: America is agog at the TV rivalry of Harding and Kerrigan. Phil Reeves reports from Los Angeles

Click to follow
The Independent Online
TWO MONTHS ago there were many Americans who could not have told you who Tonya Harding was, let alone have debated the finer points of a triple lutz or the more complex clauses of the Olympic rules.

But the attempt to smash the knee of the figure skater Nancy Kerrigan - part of a conspiracy involving Harding's former husband, Jeff Gillooly - and her approaching Olympic showdown on Wednesday on the ice with her arch-rival, has created an instant army of bar-stool experts obsessed with every detail of the affair.

In the circumstances, this is hardly surprising. For days, the scandal has made front-page news in the United States, filling hours of broadcast time on radio and television talk shows, and acres of space in the top news magazines. No fewer than five books - three on Kerrigan and two on Harding - have been commissioned, and are now being rushed into print by publishers who smell a bestseller in the offing.

Given the public hankering for information, they may well be on to a winner. A recent press survey found that 45 per cent of Americans were paying 'very close attention' to what has become known by some, rather feebly, as 'Tonyagate'.

By contrast, only 33 per cent of the country had an equally keen interest in the colourful, if far more salacious, fall of the televangelist Jim Bakker. And, despite the American fascination with the royal family, the separation of the Prince and Princess of Wales notched up a mere 11 per cent.

Nor has Hollywood been slow to get to the trough. Whatever happens on the ice, Kerrigan - who already has contracts with Reebok, Campbell's soup and several other companies - will return from Norway knowing the taste of gold. After being bombarded with more than 50 offers for film rights, her agent, Jerry Solomon, has reportedly reached a multi-media agreement with Walt Disney, ABC Television and a Hollywood producer, Steve Tisch.

The deal, which could turn out to be worth more than dollars 1m ( pounds 677,000), is believed to be for a made-for-TV movie, a TV skating special, appearances at Disney theme parks, a children's book and, possibly, a Nancy Kerrigan doll. And that is just for starters. More lucrative product endorsements are certain to follow.

Even the supposed villain of the piece, the unpopular Harding, has been enjoying an unexpected windfall. Harding has confessed that she sometimes sees dollar signs as she fantasises about the money that skating could bring her. Her day- dreams have partly come true, albeit against the backdrop of a nightmare which she would sooner have avoided.

There have been no proposals for a Tonya doll, and efforts to sell the story of her unhappy life have so far found no takers. But Inside

Edition, one of the country's several kiss 'n' tell tabloid TV shows, paid her a fee said to be around dollars 600,000 for an exclusive interview in which she once again protested her innocence.

Playboy magazine has also been sounding her out about the possibility of doing a photo session - an ordeal which could attract a fee of up to dollars 250,000.

The reasons that the United States is so transfixed by the saga are many, and touch on the darker currents that run through the society: not least, greed; the pressure to succeed at any cost; the mutilating effect of dysfunctional families; the desperate desire to be upwardly mobile. It also has much to do with the nature of the US's highly competitive television industry. From the start, the attack on Kerrigan was a tabloid TV producer's dream.

It offered everything: a plot which the average Hollywood screenwriter would kill to write; an opportunity to use footage from one of the world's most graceful and breathtaking sports; and - the best ratings-booster of them all - the parallel stories of an all-American woman with classical good looks and a resentful ugly duckling from the wrong side of the tracks.

Nowhere was television's insatiable appetite for the scandal more obvious than at the rink near Portland, Oregon, where Harding practised before setting off for Norway. A compact and solitary figure, she glided across the ice, doubtless hoping that her apparent nonchalance would convince several thousand on- lookers and scores of TV crews that nothing was amiss.

At the rink's far end, bathed in spotlights and surrounded by a crowd of her own, was Connie Chung, the television network anchorwoman, broadcasting to the nation. Moreover, almost every twist of the drama has been played out in front of the cameras, providing the news programmes with the neatly tailored instalments of a good soap opera. They have barely missed a single episode. They were there in force when a dapper-suited Jeff Gillooly appeared to make a plea bargain in court in Portland, where he accused Harding of helping plan the attack.

They were there when a tearful Tonya admitted that she did not immediately go to the authorities after discovering that members of her entourage were involved. They filmed as she fled the mobs of reporters by running barefoot to her pickup truck.

They were even there for the opening scene on 6 January - in which an anguished Kerrigan is seen crying out 'Why, why, why?' after being struck on the knee with an iron bar.

And when Harding and Kerrigan shared the ice in practice for the first time in Norway on Thursday, the cameramen were hanging off the rafters of the Hamar Amphitheatre to record the fact that there was not a single gesture of recognition between them.

The US Olympic Committee's compromise agreement with Harding's lawyers, which allowed her to skate in Norway, has only intensified the interest in the whole affair. There are predictions that the finals of the women's figure skating contest on Friday will break television viewing records.

It is, after all, a far more mesmerising spectacle than anything that the slow, and compromised, US legal system could offer. The American columnist Margaret Carlson summed it up perfectly in Time magazine: 'The millions of people who have followed this drama want a cleaner finish than would have been produced by a protracted courtroom battle with no time on the rink.

'They want an international duel in which good sportsmanship, staying within type and fair play are triumphant: where intact families, modest costumes, chemical-free hair and good teeth are rewarded.' We will see.

(Photograph omitted)