After weeks of talking tough and rattling its saber about ethics, fair play and sportsmanship, the U.S. Olympic Committee blinked. Big time. Faced with a $25 million lawsuit and a possible court order that would block its disciplinary hearing to determine whether figure skater Tonya Harding should be kicked off the U.S. Olympic team, the USOC chose the path of least resistance: It canceled the hearing and agreed to let Harding compete in the Lillehammer Games on the condition that she drop her lawsuit.
Forgotten were the defiant words of USOC president LeRoy Walker, who on Jan. 16 said, "We're not going to be intimidated by the threat of a lawsuit." And forgotten was the vow of USOC executive director Harvey Schiller, who, after the lawsuit was filed on Feb. 9, said, "We are prepared to defend ourselves." The USOC obviously wasn't prepared to defend itself. It was prepared to pass the buck back to the U.S. Figure Skating Association (USFSA), which had found "reasonable grounds" to think Harding had violated the amateur athlete's code of ethical behavior in conjunction with the assault on figure skater Nancy Kerrigan. Harding has 30 days to respond to the USFSA's findings, by which time the Olympics will be over.
Of course, a lot of people were relieved when the whole mess was...well, postponed. (Harding is still under investigation by a grand jury in Portland about her possible role in the Kerrigan assault, so this incident is far from over.) The Games, a friendly competition between nations, can once again take center stage. CBS is guaranteed a ratings bonanza when Harding and Kerrigan take the ice. And the USOC avoids a costly and distracting legal battle that would have wrested the spotlight from the other, richly deserving athletes in Lillehammer.
Without a doubt, this is a logical resolution. (It's amazing that it wasn't arrived at weeks ago.) Too bad the USOC's decision lacked integrity. In the USOC's own words, from its statement announcing its decision to let Harding skate, the attack on Kerrigan "was not only an attack on the athlete, but an assault on the basic ideals of the Olympic Movement and sportsmanship." The assault was that much and more.
Based on police and FBI reports, this is what we know about Harding's role in the Kerrigan attack and cover-up: At the time of the assault, she was living with former husband Jeff Gillooly, who has confessed his role in planning, paying for and trying to cover up the Jan. 6 attack. USFSA money meant for Harding's training was used to pay the thugs who did the job on Kerrigan. The phone in Harding and Gillooly's house was used to make conspiratorial calls. Harding drove Gillooly to and from his first meeting with his fellow conspirators. Harding lied several times to the FBI during her 10½-hour interrogation on Jan. 18. Harding said that she knew Gillooly and her bodyguard, Shawn Eckardt, were involved in the assault, but only after the fact, and that she withheld that information from authorities.
It was about these and other matters that the USOC was expected to question Harding—until the disciplinary hearing was canceled. Still to be answered are Gillooly's charges that from the beginning Harding was in on the plot to hurt Kerrigan and that she gave the go-ahead for the plan to be carried out. Harding has denied the charges.
O.K., she still hasn't been charged with a crime, so she should be allowed to skate, right? One of our constitutional rights is that we are innocent until proved guilty. But that applies to a court of law, not to participation in an Olympics. Like other constitutional rights, it is not all-encompassing. We have a right to free speech. And yet, in an extreme example, if an athlete were to announce he was a white supremacist who believed all African-Americans were inherently inferior to whites, shouldn't that person be removed from the Olympic team?
But what if that hypothetical athlete, whose supremacist beliefs fly in the face of everything the Olympics—and America—stand for, were to hire a lawyer and sue the USOC over his removal from the team? Would the USOC back down?
There are some things worth fighting for, no matter what the cost in dollars or distraction. In athletics, fair play and sportsmanship are bedrock principles that should not be sacrificed—at any price. If the athletes do not believe in what the Olympics stand for, then the Games are only games. They are not worthy of the importance we attach to them.
There is no arguing whether the USOC has the authority to remove Harding from the team. Circuit court judge Patrick D. Gilroy, in his order dismissing the case last Saturday, noted, among other things, "The USOC has the right and obligation to oversee and discipline certain conduct of its Olympic athletes."
An obligation that, in this case, was not met.