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DID HARDING WANT SKATING RIVAL DISABLED?

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The heart-wrenching TV video images of felled Olympic figure skater Nancy Kerrigan were rolling again last week.

There was Kerrigan, hobbled by a thug's blow to her leg at a Detroit ice rink. Kerrigan, scooped up in her father's arms and carried to safety. Kerrigan, wild-eyed in pain and fear, doubled over in her lacy white skating dress, clutching her knee and crying, "Why me? Why me?"The question, 10 days and three arrests later, still echoes hauntingly. Three men, including the bodyguard of Kerrigan's skating rival Tonya Harding, have been arrested on charges of plotting the attack.

But what everyone wants to know, and what remains up in the air, is whether Harding herself had a hand in what may be the ultimate in poor sportsmanship: Did she want Kerrigan disabled to improve her own chances for an Olympic gold medal next month in Lille-hammer, Norway?

Investigators would say only that Harding was under investigation. But the court of public opinion - as merciless and arbitrary as any panel of Olympic judges - was already handing out judgments.

Kerrigan rated perfect scores, handling the roles of innocent victim and gutsy survivor with the same unassuming grace she displays on the ice as America's foremost woman figure skater.

Bouquets arrived at her door in Stoneham, Mass. School kids sent get-well cards. CBS announced an extravagant "coming out party" for her, a prime-time skating special featuring Kerrigan and others a week before the Winter Olympics.

Harding - the pickup-truck driving, cigarette-smoking, pool-playing loner turned ice queen - was getting lots of attention, too, but hardly the kind she wanted.

With Kerrigan out of the way, Harding nailed last weekend's U.S. figure skating championship, which pretty much assured her a ticket to the Olympics. U.S. Olympic officials decided to send Kerrigan anyway; she was, after all, a bronze medalist at the Albertville Olympics just two years ago.

Back in Portland, Harding's victory celebration didn't last long. A day after her return, she slipped out of sight with ex-husband Jeff Gillooly, who's also under investigation in the attack.

Running from reporters, Harding endured a week of headlines about her erratic past, including head-banging, hair-pulling fights with her on-again, off-again husband.

By Saturday, two of the men arrested were reported to have told authorities that Harding was involved in planning the attack. One of them said Harding had even staged a death threat against herself in November.

And even if she isn't charged, U.S. Olympic officials called Harding a potentially "disruptive element" at the Winter Games and said they were considering whether to pull her off the U.S. team anyway.

In an interview on Cable News Network Saturday, Claire Ferguson, president of the U.S. Figure Skating Association, said no decision has been made on Harding's spot.

"Her chances at this point will depend on what happens in Portland and the courts," Ferguson said. "We are not prejudging Tonya at this time."

"She is quite exhausted by all of this," Harding's attorney, Robert Weaver, said.

Wasn't everyone. But the whole Harding-Kerrigan story has yet to unfold, and it's likely to turn even murkier.

A key figure in the investigation, bodyguard Shawn Eric Eckardt, reportedly implicated the skater and her husband in confessions he made to authorities and to a minister friend.

Eckardt's attorney says his 310-pound client was "not smart enough" to formulate and carry out the plot on his own. Eckardt, 26, reportedly told the minister friend that he didn't like Harding, his only client.

Acquaintances call Eckardt a "wannabe" security man with a penchant for tall tales and a criminal past - a 1988 conviction for soliciting a prostitute. He flunked out of a Colorado security school in 1992; the school's president, Bob Duggan, says Eckardt had "a James Bondian fantasy about himself."

Then there are Eckardt's alleged cohorts: Shane Stant, believed to be the person hired to carry out the assault in Detroit; and Stant's uncle, Derrick Brian Smith, who allegedly drove the getaway car. The beefy 6-footers are described by former neighbors as camouflage-wearing types who booby-trapped the woods around their home outside Portland.

If nothing else, there appears to be plenty of fodder here already for a made-for-TV movie.

The story began Jan. 6, when a nervous-looking man showed up at Detroit's Cobo Arena, where skaters were practicing for the championships, and asked a bystander, "Which one is Nancy Kerrigan?"

The next moment, the attacker dashed at Kerrigan, forcefully clubbing her right leg an inch or two above the kneecap. As Kerrigan's shrieks reached to the rafters, the assailant broke down a Plexiglas door and escaped into a snowstorm.

Investigators started with little more than a fuzzy videotape of the attacker and two composite sketches that were startling different. Even more bizarre, one was a sketch of a white man; one of a black man.

They ruled out early leads, including a Canadian fan who had sent Kerrigan letters with lewd compliments about her skating and her body.

A break came Monday, when Eugene Saunders, the Portland minister, told FBI agents that he'd been speaking with Eckardt.

According to Gary Crowe - a private investigator and Saunders' friend - Saunders told officials that Eckardt had played him a tape recording of Eckardt, Gillooly and Smith discussing Kerrigan.

"Why don't we just kill her?" Gillooly allegedly asked.

"We don't need to kill her," was Eckardt's alleged response. "Let's just hit her in the knee."

Eckardt later admitted his involvement in the plot to investigators, attorney W. Mark McKnight said, and sources reportedly say the confession implicated Gillooly and Harding.

If there is a tape recording, investigators haven't been able to lay their hands on it. FBI agents reportedly fitted Eckardt with a concealed microphone before his arrest Thursday and had him meet with Gillooly, but that meeting failed to produce any incriminating evidence.

The hardest piece of evidence to surface - and Kerrigan's black-and-blue leg attests to just how hard - is a telescoping metal baton. Police believe it may be the assault weapon; it turned up in a trash bin behind the skating rink last week.

While the rest of the world focused on the wild theater off the ice, Nancy Kerrigan holed up at her Massachusetts home, focusing on her own recovery.

Emerging Friday amid swirling snowflakes, Kerrigan told reporters camped on her driveway that she'd be back in the rink this week. No jumps, just "skating around."

What did she think about Harding? What about the attack?

Kerrigan shook her long dark hair, gave her trademark shrug, and tensed at the question.

"I don't think I could ever understand the answer," she said. "I can't think that viciously."