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News for Norther Colorado and the world

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Vancouver Vantage Point —1994 Lillehamer “Skategate”

1994 Lillehamer “Skategate” Set Olympic Viewing Records

Mike Moran Vancouver Vantage Point —1994 Lillehamer Skategate By: Mike Moran

“The Tabloid-Fueled Lillehammer Games” is a line included in an e-mail blast each day from NBC Sports that details the superb TV audience viewing numbers being racked up across the land by these compelling Games in Vancouver and the stunning performance of America’s athletes…………the reference is used regarding the viewership tally during the splendid 1994 Games in Norway marred forever by the malignant Tonya/Nancy “Skategate” that attracted record numbers of domestic viewers, transfixed and addicted to the soap opera that began on January 6th at the National Championships in Detroit………….. trust me, this saga was hardly limited to tabloid newspapers in the United States or anywhere else…………. I traveled to Detroit on that first weekend in January ‘94 to deliver some media “training” sessions for the skaters that made the Olympic Team from the Nationals, arriving after the attack on Nancy Kerrigan by an unknown, sinister figure, the first act of the drama that would play out over the next two months and engulf the USOC, US Figure Skating, and the mainstream media, along with millions……………my first session in Detroit was with Tonya Harding herself, who had won the national title after Kerrigan had to withdraw from the competition because of the attack………… for an hour, with her coach sitting in, I preached to Tonya about her chance to realize her dream in Lillehammer…………I told her this was a chance to repair her image, which included smoking and some rough behavior issues…………I outlined a plan where she might send a message to people with asthma about smoking, and to become a role model for young girls……………. she endured my lecture, never looking me in the eye……….. on that Sunday afternoon, I knew nothing about what awaited me in the weeks to come…………for the rest of January and until we departed for Lillehammer in early February, our staff and the USOC as a whole were subjected to thousands of phone calls, faxed letters and e-mails from people telling us what we should do, even though the details of the incident were still hazy, even letters from members of The Congress……………we had to hire temporary workers to man the phones to deal with the flood of calls from the public, split on the issue of either kicking Harding off the team or keeping her on………….. the media crush was astonishing, I received calls at home in the middle of the night from radio talk shows, and daily from reporters on the average of 100 per 24 hours……….. I spoke with some American Olympic writers like Christine Brennan, Philip Hersh, Larry Siddons, Jere Longman, Steve Woodward, Randy Harvey, Michael Janofsky, Mark McDonald and other colleagues twice a day or more………….. opinion pieces raged on the issue, some demanding that the USOC leave her alone, “innocent until proven guilty,” to “she should not represent the United States”……………. arriving in Norway, we tried to put an end to the thing, because the Norwegian organizers and the IOC were furious with the distraction and the media crush…………all the rest didn’t seem to matter to the media, and this had spread to the British, French, Italian, German and scores of other media by now………………as details emerged, so did the circus-like atmosphere increase…………. we were sued for $20 million by Harding and her representatives, our other athletes were invisible, and we tried to stage a hearing on the issue in Lillehammer, but failed when we could not engage law enforcement witnesses for details……………. on the evening of February 13, at midnight in Norway, USOC executive director Harvey Schiller and I faced some 1,000 writers, broadcasters and others in the main Press Center to make an announcement that we were going to let Harding skate……………we had intended to read a pair of prepared statements from lawyers and get off the stage without taking questions, which I announced before we began, and you know how staging a media event and not taking questions goes……………Schiller managed to get away through a side door, but I got trapped in the vortex of reporters, cameras and microphones, so for 60 minutes, I stayed, taking every question and answering, and defending and outlining our position, and trying to make sense of it all where there was none………….. on February 18, we forced Harding to appear at a press conference at the Main Press Center, which is, to this day, the most fascinating event that I ever took part in during my 43 years of doing what I do…………the event was televised live in the USA on cable, and there were almost 1,600 media and onlookers in the auditorium…………. on stage were Harding, her coach, US Figure Skating media chief Kristin Matta, and me……………Harding’s lawyer had threatened to pull her off the stage if the questions from the media centered on the “incident” and not her training and thoughts about being at the Games………. so, for the first few moments, Matta and I asked the skater softball questions, and I could hear the groans in the assembled throng…………. I could see reporters lined up, four deep, at each of the four standing microphones in the aisles in front of the stage, so I put a halt to our puffery and invited questions from the media…………….. I invited the estimable Jere Longman of the New York Times to open the media’s questions…………”You’ve lied to us and to the FBI, and you’ve failed two lie-detector tests. Why should we believe anything you tell us about the Nancy Kerrigan case,?” said Longman……….. we were off and running! Over the next 45 minutes, as the questions continued and the deflections mounted on stage, I thought a lot about a simple announcement that I had made 20 minutes before we began, that Dan Jansen, the “quintessential Olympian,” had won the speedskating 1,000 meters over in Hamar after all of his past failures and troubles, and there was audible cheering in the auditorium……….. it was, for me that morning, the best of times and the worst of times…………….. you know the rest……….. Harding and Kerrigan skated, the broken shoelace in the short program, and the ultimate silver medal for Nancy behind Oksana Baiul……………. but even after the press event, the madness continued………………we had to deal with tabloid TV shows doing side deals with Harding for access, angry letters and messages, even journalists actually breaking into Harding’s on-site athlete e-mail system…………….. every day and night, all through the Games until the end……………. when we returned, we denied Harding the honor of coming with the Team to our White House reception with the President, and then all the details emerged, a little at a time………………at long last, it finally ended, a two-month odyssey of suffocating media demands, crazy story lines, plots, investigations, accusations, arrests and resolution………………sorry, but “Tabloid-fueled” Games” just doesn’t do this thing justice.

Mike Moran was the chief spokesman for the United States Olympic Committee through thirteen Games, 1980-2002. The Omaha, Nebraska native was the Sports Information Director at the University of Colorado for a decade before joining the USOC in 1978 as it left New York City for Colorado Springs. He was the Senior Communications Counselor for NYC2012, New York City’s Olympic bid group from 2003-2005 and is now a media consultant.

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