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Harding drama ends with a broken lace

She has spent most of her skating career on a shoestring budget. In some ways, then, it seems strange that Tonya Harding's Olympic career would end in controversy over a boot lace.

Harding drew her share of attention despite starting in 10th place and finishing eighth during the final of the women's figure skating competition Friday night.

Harding, 23, interrupted her four-minute program after 45 seconds because of a faulty boot lace. She skated, crying uncontrollably, to the referee's stand. The referee ruled she could start again four skaters later. Harding skated well enough to be in second place briefly before dropping to eighth.

So ended what might have been the most controversial Olympics ever for a figure skater. Since Harding's ex-husband and bodyguard were implicated in the Jan. 6 attack on Nancy Kerrigan, and since Harding admitted she had not told the FBI all she knew, her presence in Norway had been debated. Eventually, it took a court settlement with the USOC before her position was assured.

Harding's performance was not without its moments of intrigue. During her practice, she said, she cut a bootstrap. She didn't have a replacement and the one she was given was too short.

"I tried to go out there and skate with it anyway," Harding said. "I didn't have all the holes laced up. I skipped three on the outside and two on the inside, and then laced it toward my ankle on one side and on top on the other, just trying to tighten it. I only had two minutes to get out there before I would be disqualified."

The crowd began to clap impatiently. Finally, Harding came running through the tunnel, coughing and pulling on her asthma inhaler.

Harding started her program, had to pull out of her first jump, then stopped and began weeping.

"I knew that if I was going to skate like that it was going to be very risky," she said. "I could break my ankle really easily. . . . There was no support whatsoever. I just knew that I had to stop. If I kept going, I didn't think I could have forgiven myself for trying to go for it with no support and taking a chance and breaking my ankle."

At first, Harding said, the judges gave her two minutes to replace the lace. Then they said she could re-skate at the end of her group.

In some sports _ such as downhill skiing _ equipment failure is automatic disqualification. In figure skating, it is up to the referee. Harding came out later and was visibly elated when her scores came up.

"I think I did quite well under all the circumstances," Harding said. "I was ready to have a nervous breakdown before I went out the first time. I was really happy. At least one of my dreams came true, that I was able to be here."

Harding refused to comment on the ongoing criminal investigation of the Kerrigan attack. She also said she had not decided if this was her last competition. Harding did, however, have praise for Kerrigan.

"I'm really glad she skated great," Harding said. "I hope she did it not only for herself but for the country and our team."