Peter Pringle's America: An unsporting greed for gold

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THE clubbing of Nancy Kerrigan's knee set off all the alarm bells for a nation on permanent alert about the rise in senseless violence. But soon the fear turned into fascination with an old-fashioned story of gain and greed, the scramble of commerce behind the innocence of Olympic sports. In the end, it was a story that made a terrible sense.

In the beginning, at the strike of the mugger's steel baton, the analysts had rushed into print. It must have been another weirdo, some said, an unhinged product of the sick society. To others it was the work of a new breed of stalkers, a premeditated strike by a madman overcome by passion, consumed by jealousy or propelled by hate.

Still others were convinced it was male on female violence, where the 'real issue' was not the vulnerability of superstars, but the male capacity to maim, rape or kill the women who supposedly bewitch them. Before the police had a chance even to speculate about the motive, or the identity of the attacker, this claque of experts declared confidently that the man's actions were motivated by a growing frustration with the changing gender roles of modern society.

What made everything worse was that Kerrigan was a figure skater, a champion of a porcelain sport in which there is no physical contact. Fans of figure skating are attracted by a dazzling mixture of athletic prowess, dance, glitter and suspense. The worst that can happen is a bungled twirl or a botched double axel, and the result is usually not much more than a sprained ankle.

Behind the scenes the skating world may be bitchy, petty and venal, but out front it is sequins, serenity and smiles. Figure-skating fans do not bay for blood as in boxing and football; foul language may be spoken, but under the breath. The audience sits in awed silence and often dissolves in tears when it is all over. Suddenly, this most innocent of sporting events was beset with violence.

Enter the armies of statisticians, lawyers and sports psychologists, therapists and security specialists, who are always on hand but only reveal themselves when summoned to heal, or at least explain, the latest national wound. Kerrigan, it turned out, was not the first skater to be targeted by a maniac. In 1992 a California man was sentenced to three years in a psychiatric hospital after sending threatening and obscene mail to two-time Olympic champion Katarina Witt. And, two months ago, Tonya Harding, a former national champion and Kerrigan's principal rival, skipped a local competition in Oregon after a telephone death threat.

A 'sports attorney' from California said he represented 23 quarterbacks and was constantly counselling them about how to behave in public. If they cannot walk away from insulting situations, they should not walk in public at all, he tells them. They should beware of the new breed of autograph-hunter, the one who tries to steal the star's watch while he writes his name. And they must protect themselves against the love-crazed women who camp out on their doorstep, send letters and make obscene phone calls.

If a star is seriously worried by any or all of these things, he or she should get a bodyguard, the attorney advised.

It is one such bodyguard, a huge 25-stone man whose job was to protect Harding, Kerrigan's rival, who has become the prime suspect in the knee-whacking case. Instead of random violence, it appears this act was a foul conspiracy designed to eliminate the competition.

Whoops. Wrong take on the crime of the moment. Enter a new set of back-room boys, this time the so-called sports marketing agents. They are the ones who sign up the stars to promote products after they have won gold medals. If you did not know Kerrigan before, you certainly do now, the agents crowed: 'This has taken her Q-rating (popularity) through the roof.'

Even before the incident Kerrigan was a Cinderella, the daughter of a welder and a blind mother. The family home was remortgaged to pay for her skating lessons. She won the bronze medal at the 1992 Olympics and was named one of America's most beautiful people by People magazine.

Since 1992, however, she has been struggling a bit. If she had gone to next month's Winter Olympics and lost without incident, this would have been the end of her marketing abilities. Americans cannot accept failure without extenuating circumstances. Now they have some. Kerrigan already endorses Reebok, Campbell soups, Seiko watches and Evian water, but since the attack we can expect more, they say.

As for the poor, unfortunate Harding, even if she is cleared of the conspiracy and wins the gold medal in Lillehammer, her commercial prospects are probably over, the experts say. Her Q-rating is not even on the chart. 'Controversy makes companies break out in hives,' observed Brian Murphy, publisher of the Sports Marketing Letter. 'You don't want an athlete who puts people on one side or the other of a dividing line.'

There is hope for all in the world of greed, however. Harding is the opposite of Kerrigan: no beauty, disastrous marriage, not your average ice queen, as Sports Illustrated observed. One hovering advertising man said: 'She's got asthma and smokes in public. That might not turn on anybody except Philip Morris. A tough kid wouldn't be good for Rolex, but she'd be a fit for Timex. You can't have her for Cadillac, but maybe you have her for Jeep.'

Which would leave consumers always wondering if the effort was for the gold medal, or simply for the gold.