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Decision on Harding left to Olympic Committee


LILLEHAMMER, Norway -- Now, Tonya Harding's Olympic fate lies in the hands of the U.S. Olympic Committee.

Yesterday, a five-member skating panel declared that there were "reasonable grounds to believe" the embattled Olympian was involved in the attack on rival Nancy Kerrigan.

But the U.S. Figure Skating Association panel sidestepped the issue of banishing Ms. Harding from the Winter Olympics.

"The ball is back in the USOC's court," said Bill Hybl, chairman of the USFSA.

U.S. Olympic officials announced in Lillehammer, site of the Winter Games, that they had notified Ms. Harding that a 13-member USOC Games Administrative Board "is considering" convening a hearing on her Olympic status "within two weeks."

The timing of the announcement means the Olympic status of Ms. Harding will hang in the balance well after Saturday's opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics.

The case could even be decided within a few days of the Feb. 21 women's draw, officials said.

"We have said on each and every occasion that the USOC is not a court of law," USOC Executive Director Harvey Schiller said. "We need to respect the rights of all its athletes."

The USOC contacted one of Ms. Harding's attorneys, Dennis Rawlinson, to notify Ms. Harding of their action.

Olympic officials expect to decide within a week whether to have the hearing.

The figure skating panel that met for three days in Colorado Springs, Colo., issued a blistering rebuke of Ms. Harding for her alleged role in the Jan. 6 clubbing of Ms. Kerrigan.

The panel also called for a hearing with Ms. Harding within 30 days. But because the U.S. team already is gathering in Norway, the case would go directly to the USOC.

Her primary attorneys, Dennis Rawlinson and Robert Weaver Jr., issued a brief statement: "USFSA does not conclude that Ms. Harding has in any way been involved in any wrongdoing or in any way violated its code of ethics. The statement of charges is based upon conflicting evidence, including, in part, allegations by [Harding's ex-husband] Jeff Gillooly and [her ex-bodyguard] Shawn Eckardt which Tonya has denied," the lawyers said.

"Tonya Harding will respond to the statement in compliance with the bylaws and rules of the USFSA." Dr. Sharon Watson, a panel member, said: "We've taken it very, very seriously. We tried to be very fair. I think we bent over backward to give Tonya the benefit of the doubt, but we had to deal with the evidence that was before us."

The skating panel ruled that Ms. Harding violated the USFSA's code of ethics:

"The Hearing Panel has determined that reasonable grounds exist to believe:

"(a) That Tonya Harding;

"(b) While a Member of the USFSA;

"(c) Committed an act, made a statement, or engaged in conduct detrimental to the welfare of figure skating and/or failed to exemplify the highest standards of fairness, ethical behavior, and genuine good sportsmanship in her relations with others.

"The Hearing Panel further finds that reasonable grounds exist to believe that Tonya Harding:

"(a) committed an act to carry out a plan and/or was involved in a plan to injure Nancy Kerrigan; or

"(b) knew about a plan to injure Nancy Kerrigan and either failed to oppose it, failed to report it, or made false statements about her knowledge concerning it."

Law enforcement officials have not charged Ms. Harding in the ** case.

Mr. Gillooly has pleaded guilty to one charge of racketeering. Three other men also have been arrested.

So what's next for Ms. Harding?

She will have to respond to the USFSA charges within 30 days, but that would come well after the conclusion of the Olympic Games.

Ms. Harding could also be summoned to appear before the USOC Administrative Board before then.

But if Ms. Harding doesn't appear before the board in Norway, the panel still could proceed to oust her.

And, in bit of Olympic irony, one of those on the board is New York Yankees owner and USOC Vice President George Steinbrenner, whose $10,000 donation to the skater may have been used to finance the attack on Ms. Kerrigan.

"I don't think it would be inappropriate for him [Mr. Steinbrenner] to serve," Mr. Schiller said. "He has given money to other skaters through the USFSA."

Asked if there could be a more graceful way to consider Ms. Harding's Olympic fate, John Ruger, the chairman of the Athletes' Advisory Council, said: "I wish there was."

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