COMMENTARY : Bystander Kwan the Real Victim in Skating Mess


I do not feel sorry for Tonya Harding.

I do not feel as sorry for Nancy Kerrigan as I did on Jan. 6. That was the day she was injured in an assault that Portland, Ore., law enforcement authorities still contend Harding helped plot, even though they accepted her guilty plea Wednesday to a lesser crime.

Kerrigan recovered from her knee wounds, won a silver medal in the Winter Olympics and, according to sports marketing experts, could earn more than $10 million in her new career as a star of ice shows, television specials and commercials.

It has been suggested by some of those same experts, cynically but probably also truthfully, that Kerrigan would not have been nearly so marketable without that whack on the knee. No, it is difficult at this point to still feel sorry for Nancy Kerrigan.


I do, however, feel sorry for Michelle Kwan.

She is the victim of Skategate, perhaps the only one.

When Harding resigned from the U.S. Figure Skating Assn. on Wednesday, it was not clear whether she eventually will be required to forfeit the national championship she won in January after the favorite, Kerrigan, was forced to withdraw. If so, Kwan, as a result of her second-place finish, would become the champion. At age 13, she would be the youngest-ever U.S. champion.

But that is little compensation for not having the opportunity, perhaps the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, to skate in last month’s Winter Olympics, which she, as the first alternate, would have done if Harding’s lawyers had not been so efficient in preventing the U.S. Olympic Committee from doing the right thing and dropping their client from the team.

Relying upon the advice of Shep Goldberg, the Santa Monica agent retained by Danny and Estella Kwan of Torrance to assist their young daughter through this difficult period, both she and her coach, Frank Carroll, have for the last 2 1/2 months graciously declined to answer all questions pertaining to anything other than her skating. Goldberg feared that even one controversial response would turn the Tonya and Nancy story into the Tonya and Nancy and Michelle story.

So they all bit their lips before speaking, waiting for justice to prevail. It did Wednesday, three weeks too late for Kwan.

She went to Norway, but, because she was not an official team member, was not allowed to stay in the athletes’ village or train on the official practice ice. She watched the competition from the stands.

If Carroll heard it once, he heard it a thousand times that Kwan is only 13, that she has already established herself as the sport’s rising star by becoming the world junior champion and that there will be other chances for her to skate in the Winter Olympics. But he has been coaching figure skaters for too long to take the future for granted.


For every Kristi Yamaguchi who goes from world junior champion to Olympic champion, there are dozens of other promising young skaters who fall by the wayside. Cindy Bortz of Tarzana and Jessica Mills of Northbrook, Ill., are two recent world junior champions from the United States who did not meet with the same success as seniors.

One of Carroll’s former students, Tiffany Chin of Toluca Lake, finished fourth in the 1984 Winter Olympics at 16 and was immediately pronounced the gold-medal favorite for 1988. But she developed a muscle imbalance in her hips, knee and ankles and retired before the next Olympics.

Injuries happen. Bodies develop. Interests change.

When Wednesday’s news about Harding broke, Kwan was on an airplane en route to Japan, where she will begin competition Monday in the World Championships. She is replacing Kerrigan, who withdrew. Whether Kwan will return to Japan in 1998 for the Winter Olympics is anyone’s guess.


It is a tribute, I suppose, to the American system of justice that Harding’s rights were protected until she pleaded guilty. But who was protecting Michelle Kwan’s rights?

* SURPRISE PLEA: Tonya Harding pleads guilty to “hindering prosecution” and resigns from U.S. figure skating as a result of the attack on rival skater Nancy Kerrigan. A1