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Sunday, December 11, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Commentary -- Kerrigan's Off-Ice Spins Create `Image Meltdown'

Chicago Tribune

In the chaotic madness of this figure-skating season, which picked up right where the chaotic madness of the last figure-skating season left off, there has been one touchstone.

The spotlight continues to shine most brilliantly and harshly on Nancy Kerrigan, exposing in equal measure her grace and her awkwardness, her beauty and her flaws, her appeal and her repellence.

Pictures of Kerrigan's variable image have come from a variety of sources, from the National Enquirer to People to Sports Illustrated to broadcasts of the ersatz competitions and ice shows flooding television this fall. That should be enough evidence for anyone.

Kerrigan's current show, is "Christmas on Ice," which co-stars singer Aaron Neville. The Chicago stop in the 15-city tour was canceled, because of stadium problems, low advance sales, or both.

Attendance at the show's first few dates has been low, with 14,000 paid out of 29,000 available seats in Portland, Maine; Syracuse and Albany. N.Y.

Perhaps the public finally is saying enough of this glut of figure skating. Perhaps the public is saying it can't stomach the idea of Kerrigan starring in a family-oriented show.

Maybe that explains why the publication of Kerrigan's book for children - a Disney project - continues to be postponed, or why the movie project about her life was canceled.

"If you see the show yourself, you'll see a happy Nancy Kerrigan," said Stan Feig, the producer. "She is doing something she wants to be doing, and it shows."

Feig was speaking from Memphis, where he had just produced something called the "Rock n' Roll Skating Championships." It featured Kerrigan, Oksana Baiul, Katarina Witt, Scott Hamilton, Elvis Stojko and Viktor Petrenko being judged by gymnastics coach Bela Karolyi, MTV veejay Downtown Julie Brown, supermodel Kathy Ireland, decathlon champion Bruce Jenner, actor-dancer Ben Vereen and Olympic skating champion Peggy Fleming. Oh.

Feig also had nice things to say about Kerrigan in a recent issue of Sports Illustrated. The magazine seems to have assumed the role of spin doctor for Kerrigan, filling a void left by the failings in that regard of her agent and companion, Jerry Solomon. He has made her fabulously wealthy, but at what cost?

The SI article was the second since Kerrigan won her silver medal in the 1994 Olympics in which SI joins the skater's apologists in the argument that her frequent rudeness can be forgiven because she is human, not a fairy princess.

That argument would excuse her remarks after the Olympic free skate, in which she sniped at Baiul; her snide comment to a CBS camera after a desultory performance in last month's "Ice Wars"; her snub of the Olympic closing ceremonies; her ill-advised comments at Disney World; her pushing away a U.S. figure-skating team official and one of her coaches when they tried to console her at the 1993 World Championships.

Sorry, but Kerrigan's remarks about Baiul expressed not only annoyance over the awards-ceremony delay that led to them but were uttered in a clearly mean-spirited tone. Such curtness has been evident for years to those who knew Kerrigan, but her personality never became an issue until the Olympics. Then the media generally protected her because it would have seemed unfair to bash someone who already had been bashed in the knee Jan. 6 in Detroit by accomplices of Tonya Harding.

Kerrigan supporters, including Solomon, have tried to cover her early departure from Norway with a self-perpetuating explanation: there had been death threats against her, and Norwegian security said they could not guarantee her safety at the closing ceremonies.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, sources familiar with all details of Kerrigan's security at the Olympics insisted there were no death threats in Norway and that Norwegian officials never mentioned problems in protecting her.

The closing ceremonies took place while Kerrigan was in a Disney World parade, where she rode in an open vehicle. Could anyone guarantee she was safe doing that?

Rushing her home to fulfill commercial commitments was just one of the many mistakes Solomon has made, leading to what People calls, "image meltdown." It was possible, if difficult, to pass off her picking on Baiul as a reaction to a disappointing loss, but Kerrigan has continued to react that way to other situations.

It seems unjust to Kerrigan supporters that her affair with Solomon, who was married when it began, has put them both in the pages of the National Enquirer and People. The apologists recoil when Harding is shown on TV as anything less than a villain. They constantly remind you that Kerrigan was the victim of the attack.

The victim thing can go only so far. While Kerrigan was the object of a brutal attack, she went on, after all, to deliver the only championship-quality performance of her career at the Winter Olympics.

She lost by a 5-4 judges' score to Baiul, whom, it may be remembered, injured her back and leg a day before the free-skate final in a practice collision. It was at least as violent, accidental or not, as the clubbing of Kerrigan's knee.

The fame (notoriety?) Kerrigan achieved owes as much to having been attacked than to the erratic quality of her skating. She claims to be unprepared and uncomfortable with celebrity, yet does nothing to avoid it. It's like a deal with the devil, which one can take or leave but not complain about once it is made.

It has been suggested that sexism applies to the criticism of Kerrigan's actions - the "if she was a man, no one would call her anything but a fighter" argument.

Her behavior is simply unacceptable in the milieu of figure skating, which, like golf or tennis, imposes different standards of conduct than other sports on both its men and women.

Kerrigan's longtime training partner, Paul Wylie, did not whine after losing a close decision to Viktor Petrenko for the 1992 men's gold. Nor did Rosalynn Sumners after losing a 5-4 decision to Witt in 1984.

The lingering picture of Nancy Kerrigan will not be of her competitive courage at the Olympics, of her rising above adversity to do her best under the greatest pressure. It will be the one seen again at "Ice Wars," where she managed just one easy triple jump, profaned the air and spun her image further out of control.

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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