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Go figure: skaters in spotlight WINTER OLYMPICS


LILLEHAMMER, Norway -- They had such a nice, little sport.

Pre-dawn practices in frigid, out-of-the-way arenas where the audience consists of kids and a Zamboni driver. Glittering, once-a-year competitions in midsized cities. And finally, once every four years, the chance to shine at the Winter Olympics.

But those in American figure skating never have gone through a month like this, from the knee-bashing of Nancy Kerrigan to the potential Olympic expulsion of her rival, Tonya Harding.

The story has grown so strange and frenzied that Brian Boitano's coach, back home in the San Francisco Bay area, barely could leave home without hearing about it.

"It is hard for me to see this in perspective," Linda Leaver said. "You know what you think and feel. And then to read all of these things, you just go, 'Wow!' People are into this. I couldn't even go to church or the supermarket anymore back home, because that is all people wanted to talk about."

Skating may never be the same.

Yesterday, the American skaters continued their journey into the world of mass media run amok.

At the Olympic figure skating rink in Hamar, 12 days before the women's competition begins, Kerrigan took her first steps on the ice in perhaps the most eagerly awaited practice in the sport's history.

In front of 100 journalists, dozens of Olympic volunteers and another few dozen minicams, Kerrigan skated for 45 minutes.

She spun what could have been a gold-medal-winning long program, fell down once on a triple Lutz, and left with a smile.

"I had a couple of slip-ups, but that is to be expected," Kerrigan said. "I thought it went very well."

Meanwhile, up the road, the other American skaters held a news conference in which they were asked nearly as often about the scandal as they were of their medal chances.

And of course, among the missing was Tonya Harding, back home in Portland, Ore.

To hear most of the skaters tell it, they have no opinion on Harding's alleged involvement in the attack on her rival.

"I find it exciting that everyone is hustling around trying to find out what is happening with Tonya," said pairs performer Todd Reynolds. "It's probably very stressful for Nancy. But I can't believe it. I turn on the television, and there they are."

On his way to practice yesterday with his partner, Karen Courtland, Reynolds said the bus driver warned them of the three-ring media circus at the five-ring Olympic ice hall.

"The most impressive thing so far is all the cameras and the press for Nancy's practice," Reynolds said. "It's incredible. Man, you couldn't believe it. They were ringing the whole rink."

All wanted to catch just a glimpse of Kerrigan, on the mend since being bashed once in the right knee Jan. 6 at the U.S. championships in Detroit.

While the scoreboard flashed the names of Harding, Kerrigan and three others, there were just two skaters on the ice. Joining Kerrigan was South Korea's Lily Lyonjung Lee.

"It was the most unbelievable thing I have ever seen, to see everyone at the practice," said Lee's coach, Kathy Casey of Colorado Springs, Colo.

Reporters lined the boards. Kerrigan skated. Then she spoke briefly, the interview ending abruptly when one reporter asked Kerrigan how she would react if Harding attempted to give her a hug.

"Bye," Kerrigan said.

Kerrigan's coach, Evy Scotvold, said the skater "has been great," working hard "to overcome a lot of stuff."

"Nancy just had cabin fever," Scotvold said. "She just wanted to see the daylight."

Kerrigan's Olympic teammates also want only to skate in Hamar. They would prefer to sidestep the controversy.

"I don't even want to talk about it," Boitano said.

Scott Davis, the reigning two-time U.S. men's champion, said the public should view the attack on Kerrigan as an isolated incident and not as a symbol of a sport.

"I don't think the incident reflects skating," he said.

"All the people I've encountered in the sport are focused on themselves," he said. "I know that sounds bad, but it is such an individual sport."

Jerry Lace, executive director of the U.S. Figure Skating Association, seems confident that the controversy soon will be overshadowed by the sequins and triple jumps.

"We didn't need this," he said. "We were good before this. We'll be good after this. The other skaters have just been overshadowed by this thing. They deserve a heck of a lot more publicity."

But for now, the story remains the same: It's the Nancy and Tonya Show.

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