Leading Article: The perils of commercialism

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HAS THE United States Olympic Committee caved in? That will be the first reaction in sporting minds to the committee's decision to allow the young figure-skating champion Tonya Harding to compete at Lillehammer, and to suspend a disciplinary hearing into accusations that she was involved in the iron-bar attack made on her strongest rival last month.

In fact American law gave the committee no choice. Rude, materialistic and ungracious, Ms Harding is justifiably far less popular than Nancy Kerrigan, the figure skater whose right knee was so nearly smashed at a practice rink in Detroit. But for all her faults, Ms Harding has been neither convicted of a crime nor charged with one. The only fault that she admits - and apologises for - is failing to hand on promptly to the police information that she received about the attack after it took place.

Before the Winter Olympics opened, the Washington Post argued that 'Miss Harding's silence could have prevented justice from being done and the attackers from being caught. That is what Miss Harding did wrong, and why she should not go to the Olympics'. But the attacker was caught. Given the ferocity of the rivalry between the two skaters, and the importance of the Lillehammer games, Ms Harding was under stress when she failed to contact the authorities immediately. That lapse alone was not reason enough to deny her a place on the Olympic team. Had the USOC tried to do so, Ms Harding might have won the dollars 25m lawsuit that she has now abandoned.

After the Olympics, however, she will have tough questions to answer. Did she, as her ex-husband told the FBI, provide a magazine photograph so a hired thug could identify her rival? Advise which knee was more important to damage? Find out where Ms Kerrigan practised? Complain when an earlier planned attack fell through? If even some of these astounding claims are proven, Ms Harding should not only be stripped of any medals she may win at Lillehammer, she should also be banned from figure skating for life.

Either story - that Ms Harding ordered the attack, or that her ex- husband tried to frame her - may be true, but if good is to come of this affair, athletes should think hard. The damage to Ms Harding's reputation illustrates the perils of commercialism and naked ambition.