LILLEHAMMER, Norway -- Despite the turmoil that has surrounded her during the last month, Tonya Harding said yesterday she believes she has the support of her teammates and the American public.
Speaking publicly for the first time since she arrived here, Harding told nearly 1,000 journalists at a news conference that she did not participate in the 1994 Winter Olympic opening ceremonies because a team leader asked her not to appear. She also said recent photos of her topless embarrassed her and made her ashamed.
Harding wanted to bring her attorney to the news conference, but USOC officials said that was unacceptable. Security was nearly doubled for the event because of death threats to Harding.
Harding, dressed in a USA warm-up suit and accompanied by her coach, Diane Rawlinson, appeared nervous at the beginning, especially when the first question from a reporter asked why anyone should believe she's innocent in the attack on rival skater Nancy Kerrigan after she lied about smoking cigarettes, lied to the FBI about the cover-up of the plot to injury Kerrigan and reportedly failed lie-detector tests.
There was silence before Harding said it was "an inappropriate question." Harding declined to answer any questions about her background or about the attack on Kerrigan, and frequently directed questions to Rawlinson.
"I have prayed to God that He would let me come to the Lillehammer Olympics," said Harding. "That hope has never died. I'm very grateful being here today, and hopefully I will give the figure skating performance of my life."
Rawlinson said she spoke with the U.S. team leader about attending the opening ceremonies, and "it was suggested that we come later because of all the controversy." Harding arrived Wednesday, the fifth day of the Olympics.
"I said it was fine, that we had to do what was best for the team," said Rawlinson. "Because of the media circus, we didn't think it was fair to the other athletes to take all the attention."
The U.S. Olympic Committee, however, issued a statement saying that travel arrangements were made by mutual agreement.
"The attention is great," said Harding, implying she enjoyed some of the limelight, "but it would be better if they could focus on some of the other great athletes. I was trying to work for the team. Since I've been here they have supported me. I think we are a complete team and everybody respects me."
A videotape of Harding dancing topless recently was shown on U.S. television, and photographs taken of the tape were published in The London Sun. The pictures have been shown at the Olympics.
"I got very upset and ashamed and embarrassed," said Harding. "The one thing I have to say is if everyone could put themselves in my position, how would you feel?"
It's one case of where the media has worked against her, but Harding also has played the media. She confirmed she has signed a contract with the TV show "Inside Edition," but said the money will be used to pay lawyers and coaches, as well as starting the Tonya Harding Trust for Special Olympics in Oregon.
"I'm not profiting off the situation, and there have been no endorsements," said Harding. "I didn't get into the skating for the endorsements."
Harding said she has been distracted by the investigation. Her
workouts in Portland, Ore., were frequently witnessed by 3,000 people.
"I think I have the support of the American people. I have to stay strong and focused," she said. "Until the Olympics are over I have no choice. I must put everything aside but the training if I am to reach my goal. When all this is over, I can sit down and cry."
Harding was shaky during the early part of yesterday's first practice session, which Kerrigan did not attend. Harding skipped her jumps during the formal part of practice, when her music was playing, and she fell several times on a triple loop afterward.
But she hit a triple axel at the end of practice and showed no signs ofbeing bothered by her right ankle. The soreness obviously returned in the afternoon session, this time with Kerrigan on the ice. Harding landed only one of four triple jumps, and even on that one she stepped forward and grabbed her ankle.
Tears welling in her eyes after her last fall, Harding chopped at the ice with her hand and cried, "I can't do it. I can't do it. I can't do it." A moment later, she stomped away in disgust, her music still playing. She had been out there for 22 minutes, but skated only a few minutes.
"The ankle injury is no big deal, I've had that for quite a while," Harding said. "The second practice wasn't going as well as I wanted that day, but I'll be there when it counts."
Harding and Kerrigan have avoided each other on the ice, but the two did have an exchange in the athletes' village.
"It was a brief encounter, we said hello, it was kind of a private thing, but positive," said Harding. "I have a great deal of respect for Nancy, and I don't believe there is a lot of private tension. I do believe that we all need our space on the ice, and we're just trying to show consideration."
Yesterday, The Boston Globe reported that Kerrigan's choice of costume for Thursday's workout -- the same lacy white outfit she wore the day she was clubbed in the knee -- was intentional.
Mary Scotvold, one of Kerrigan's coaches, asked her not to wear the outfit. According to Scotvold, Kerrigan said: "I have to. I want to make sure Tonya sees me in this again."