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Tonya vs. Nancy: Choosing Your Side Can Be Revealing

February 23, 1994|CARLA HALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tonya or Nancy?

It will be a simple choice for Debbie Longo. "I'm rooting for Nancy," said the 21-year-old Citrus Community College sophomore who once dreamed of being an Olympic equestrian but now tries to content herself with breeding horses. "You work every day to get a gold medal and someone comes and bashes her leg in--and she still didn't give up. . . . When that happened to her, I knew that feeling: to have your dream shattered."

Score another one for Nancy at Big Shots Billiards Bar & Grill in Lake Forest, where the TVs will be tuned in tonight for the big showdown on ice.

"I'm sure Nancy'll be the overwhelming favorite here," said manager Richard Mathieu. "It's good against evil, the old white hat against the black hat and all that."

But Sandy Clever is just as sure of her favorite. "Tonya," said the 28-year-old office manager from the Northern California town of Sunnyvale. "That's how I was--very bad, very black sheep of the family, trying to show yourself and get some attention."

In the annals of sports rivalries great and small, Ali versus Frazier, Magic versus Bird, the Yankees versus the Dodgers, Chris Evert versus Martina Navratilova, the L.A. Raiders versus anyone, today's matchup of Nancy Kerrigan versus Tonya Harding ranks as a classic exercise in choosing sides.

Perhaps not since after Giant pitcher Juan Marichal whacked Dodger catcher John Roseboro on the head with a bat in Candlestick Park in the summer of 1965 has there been such anticipation to see what would happen the next time two warring athletes--linked uncomfortably by a shocking act of violence--ventured again within a sporting arena. (When the two baseball players did meet again, nothing happened.)

The global village, it seems, is divided into cheering sections--and whom you back may say more about you than it does about either of the skaters in the spotlight. When it comes time to choose between Kerrigan and Harding, most people will choose their soul mate on ice.

"Someone said life is like an inkblot upon which we project all of our unfulfilled secret needs and fears," said psychologist Chaytor Mason, professor emeritus at USC. "That's exactly what's going on here." The Tonya people, he speculated, "are projecting their own unfulfilled needs for recognition, the 15 minutes of fame . . . for the times when even though they worked hard at the company they were unrecognized and some pretty young competitor got all the glory. They're projecting onto this situation."

And the Nancy people: "They're the Mr. Rights or the Ms. Rights. They do things right," Mason said. "Certainly the Tonya people are more noticeable. But I would say in the long run, probably there are more Nancy people. Most of us do believe in playing the game by the rules and making a success by sheer hard work."

As television executives eagerly await a viewing audience of Super Bowl proportions for tonight's technical program--better known as "the showdown in Norway"--no consensus has emerged over the image in which to cast these two athletes: Kerrigan is the victim of a vicious attack or the beneficiary of unearned media attention. Harding is the beleaguered, hard-fighting underdog or the devious, unsporting competitor.

But the urge to weigh in has been irresistible, attracting pundits from all over the world.

"A lot us have had some Tonya in our lives," said the Rev. Jesse Jackson. "We have known some rejection . . . some misunderstanding. . . . All the stuff we know about esteem-building, she's not had much of that. And yet in spite of that, she keeps smiling on the outside and skating at the highest levels. And her insides must look like shattered glass."

Jackson diplomatically declined to take sides. "I obviously hope both do well," he said. But his compassion for Harding is unquestionable. "Whether it's Tupac Shakur or Mike Tyson or Tonya Harding, these children were not born this way. . . . Let's have some sense of correction and redemption and mercy toward them."

Casting diplomacy aside, skaters at the Ice Capades Chalet rink in Costa Mesa weren't afraid to take a side Tuesday.

"I'm for the bad one," Jim Vigil, 49, said as he laced up his skates for the first time in 15 years at the pleading of his 7-year-old daughter, Jamie, a budding figure skater.

If there was any doubt as to whom he was referring, the Costa Mesa resident quickly settled the question. "That Kerrigan, she's gotten a lot of free publicity, but I think Tonya's probably the better skater."

His wife, Mary, added her support. "I just feel really sorry for Tonya--I think she's had a rough life."

And what of the allegations of knee-bashing that surround her?

Juli Seamark of Lake Forest, a 12-year-old lawyer in the making, was quick to rally to her defense.

"I want Tonya, because in the United States, you're innocent until proven guilty," she said.

Others are less diplomatic. "Tonya's like me," Democratic political analyst Bob Beckel quipped breathlessly on "CBS This Morning." "She takes no prisoners."

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