PORTLAND, Ore. -- Tonya Harding's appearance on Fox television this Thursday will mark one of the few respites from a tawdry hell the 27-year-old former skating champion has been inhabiting for the past few years.
Mostly, it's spent in the Sidelines sports bar, where Harding has staked a claim on the fourth bar stool in front of the video poker machines.
"Three, four, five days a week," says the bartender.
Harding feeds fives, tens and twenties into the video poker machine for hours, often playing alone, sometimes accompanied by a middle-aged woman Harding has unofficially adopted as her mother. Burning through money that comes from Lord-knows-where, she puffs Marlboro Lights, drinks Baileys mixed with a chocolate liqueur and tries to ignore patrons who consider her the antichrist of American sports, Olympic integrity and clean-cut Oregon pride.
There is a poignancy in watching a brilliantly talented individual -- the two-time Olympic contender and 1991 U.S. national and world champion could definitely skate -- repeatedly slide back into to the seedy, lonely life from which world-class skating once promised to deliver her. Even in her tough-girl pose, Harding has a sweetness, and a vulnerable, I've-been-abused face. She makes people want to help her, and for years, many have tried.
These are patient people: coaches who've had a stake in her success, agents who want to cash in on her and co-dependent fans who believe they can offer the parental guidance she never received from her dysfunctional family. And almost to a person, she burns them out. The final goodbye is often delivered by Harding in a screaming fit.
Her 1994 entourage, some of whom served jail time, has been replaced by Linda Lewis, 51, a born-again Christian singer who now acts as Harding's unofficial manager. Harding calls her "Mom" and moved to Vancouver, Wash., across the bridge from Portland, in part because that's where Lewis lives.
When she isn't gambling, smoking or drinking, Harding, in theory, is staging a comeback. "She'd like a future in skating professionally," says Lewis. "We know America's a forgiving nation and we hope things will turn around for her. She did her community service. She paid her fines. I think the double standard has to stop. There's one set of rules for men and one for women."
Ever since associates of Harding clubbed rival skater Nancy Kerrigan on the knee during the 1994 Olympic trials in Detroit, Harding has been the great untouchable of the figure-skating world. She still maintains she knew nothing of the attack until after it had occurred. She pleaded guilty to conspiring to hinder the investigation, paid $110,000 in fines, contributed $50,000 to the Special Olympics fund and volunteered for 500 hours at a Portland area soup kitchen.
But redemption has never been hers. While the sports world is
littered with misbehaving, but forgiven, male athletes, who have beaten their wives, taken illegal drugs and bet against their own teams, Harding's badge of shame seems indelible.
Banned for life by the U.S. Figure Skating Association, she's barred from almost all skating events, including the local Christmas performance at the Clackamas Town Center. As a convicted felon, she can forget about going on the pro tour. Thursday's television appearance, in which she skates with six other women as well as facing Kerrigan in an interview, will be her first nationally televised skating exhibition since the Lillehammer Games in 1994.
Not that Harding's been entirely inactive. For a while she managed a professional wrestler. She appeared in a forgettable
B-movie, "Breakaway," and recorded a demo tape of "Amazing Grace." No recording contract followed.
Cash, when she has it, goes for cars, trucks and a boat. She sold her house to pay back taxes to the IRS and has had to rely on the kindness of the tabloids to maintain a livelihood -- an "exclusive" appearance on "Inside Edition," selling wedding pictures of her second marriage, then selling coverage of her ensuing divorce.
In the realm of the weird, Harding claimed last February that a man
tried to abduct her from her pickup truck. She also says she's
been stalked by a pair of professional golfers. In 1996, she saved an elderly woman who was choking on a chicken bone by giving her mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on the floor of the Lost & Found saloon in suburban Milwaukie.
All of which, no doubt, will be broadcast to the patrons of the Sidelines bar as they watch this year's Winter Olympic proceedings from Nagano, along with endless reruns of Harding's teary face as she showed the judges her broken skate lace at Lillehammer, where she finished eighth.
But the main focus will be on the Michelle Kwan and the other young medal-bound skaters, who will reap the money and fame Harding wanted so badly.
"It's got to be devastating," says Deana Julka, assistant professor of social and behavioral science at the University of Portland. "It's easier to assume the role of victim than to acknowledge: I actively brought this down on myself."