Nancy Kerrigan, riding the huge wave of public sympathy generated since last month's assault on her right knee, responded admirably under huge pressure but fell short of the ultimate prize.
Well as she skated the free programme that concluded the women's competition, she had to content herself with an Olympic silver medal to add to the bronze she won two years ago as Oksana Baiul, the young world champion, held her own nerve to take the gold.
Tonya Harding, who faces charges of aiding and abetting the attack on her US rival as soon as she returns from the Games, ended in eighth place after a farcical false start occasioned, she said afterwards, by a broken lace in her skating shoe. That particular part of the American storyline worked out nicely.
The 16-year-old Ukrainian, who was left an orphan when her mother died of cancer three years ago, was the youngest world champion to seek an Olympic title since Norway's own Sonja Heine in 1928. She had left it until late before announcing her intention to skate as a result of the previous day's heavy collision with Tanya Szewczenko of Germany which left her with a sore back and three stitches in her right shin.
As the first set of her technical marks came up, Baiul's face was tugged helplessly into tears. But the second set of marks, for artistic impression, were enough to give her the verdict over Kerrigan with a majority of five of the nine judges. Bye Bye to Miss American Pie.
'If I can handle the pressure of the last two months I can handle this,' Kerrigan said. It was just over seven weeks ago that her presence at these Games was called into question by the attack with a metal rod which left her nursing a badly bruised knee.
Having won Wednesday's night's technical programme, the 24-year- old from Stoneham, Massachusetts required to hold her skating together to avoid a reoccurrence of her experience at last year's World Championships. Then she also went into the free programme as leader but finished fifth.
This time she put together a routine that faltered only once and contained six triple jumps - one more than Baiul, one less than Surya Bonaly, the French four-time European champion who came to grief, leaving the bronze to Chen Lu of China. As Kerrigan acknowledged the huge applause and the bouquets bounced on to the ice, it seemed she had done enough to create an improbable ending for a saga that has already assured her of a fortune. 'You are so gutsy,' shouted her coach, Evy Scotvold.
She was. And she has the consolation of a deal with ABC Television and Disney for a figure which her agent has coyly put at 'between dollars 500,000 and dollars 10m'. She was dignified in her disappointment afterwards. 'I really went for it,' she said. 'That was the most I put into something in my whole life. I worked so hard in the last seven weeks. It was tough, but I did it and I am proud.'
Harding's name was announced at the appointed hour. The scoreboard read: On the ice: Tonya Harding. Only Harding was missing.
As the audience grew restive, the camera shots on the TV displays showed confused movement behind a large blue curtain. Momentarily, it was Morecambe and Wise. 'Ladies and gentlemen,' the announcer said above the rising boos and whistles, 'Tonya Harding has got two minutes until she has to be present on the ice.'
Was it her ankle? Had she cracked up? Or was this the only way she had to upstage Kerrigan?
With just 20 seconds of her allowed time left, the skater in question glided into view in an undignified pose, bent double and tying up her laces. After pausing to compose herself she clasped her hands intently before embarking upon a routine that lasted no more than 20 seconds and included one abortive effort at a triple lutz. She stopped and wavered, her face tugging against the tears. She skated over to the referee and hitched her righty skate over the board into his view.
After a brief discussion with two other officials, she returned to the rinkside point of her coach, Diane Rawlinson, shouting out: 'Re-tie it right now.' The panic ceased with the announcement that Harding had a problem with her skate and would go again at the end of the group, which she did without undue cause for dismay.
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