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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS | SOFTBALL

Harding Spells Trouble for U.S.

July 26, 1996|CHRIS DUFRESNE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — Packed subways, lost bus drivers, scheduling snafus and, now, Tanya Harding?

Well, thankfully for Billy Payne, it's not that Harding, the hit-woman ice skater named Tonya who left her mark--black--on Nancy Kerrigan's knee and sport in general.

This Tanya Harding is the star pitcher for Australia's Olympic softball team, which faces the United States today in a key first-round game in Columbus, Ga.

This Tanya Harding is infamous in her own right. Southern Californians will remember her as the "ringer" the UCLA softball team used to win the 1995 NCAA title.

Harding caused a stir when she left UCLA and returned to Australia two days after the College World Series, in which she was named most valuable player after going 4-0 with a 0.50 earned-run average.

Harding spent only one semester in Westwood and joined the team in the 21st game of a 56-game season. Her "gun-for-hire" appearance angered academics and others throughout the country.

Tanya, like Tonya, became the brunt of jokes. Sports Illustrated's Leigh Montville wrote: "The jurors in the O.J. Simpson trial have been sequestered almost twice as long as she was a student."

A letter writer to The Times, wishing to make a donation to UCLA, wrote: "I wonder whether my next donation should be in U.S. or Aussie dollars."

The Harding incident was a taint on the UCLA athletic department, which was put on one-year probation by the Pacific 10 Conference for using a scholarship on Harding that it did not have to give. The school was notified in May that the NCAA Committee on Infractions is also investigating the softball program.

These days, Harding, from Brisbane, is trying to lead Australia to the Olympic gold medal. To do so, the Aussies will have to go through the powerful U.S. team.

Australia was the bronze-medal winner at the 1994 World Championship and is a medal contender here, but the team got off to a slow start in round-robin play, going 1-2 before consecutive victories over the Netherlands and Japan.

Aussie officials would not confirm whether Harding, 24, would start against the United States.

"There's a good chance, but I really don't know what he [Coach Bob Crudgington] is going to do," team spokesperson Marie Holden said Thursday after Australia's 10-0 victory over Japan. Harding is a logical choice to face the U.S. She hasn't started since July 22.

Harding has always maintained her innocence in the UCLA flap.

"What I did wasn't illegal," she told The Times last year. "I feel bad in a way because if I'd known it was going to cause this much trouble I probably wouldn't have gone in the first place."

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