The recent announcement that Ashley Wagner was named to the U.S. figure skating team was big news. But outside the rink, the controversy over the choice of Wagner over fellow skater Mirai Nagasu barely caused a ripple. This was nothing like the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan figure skating scandal 20 years ago -- a scandal that ESPN named as one of its most memorable sports moments of the 20th century.
Two decades later, the Harding/Kerrigan story still captivates: a hardscrabble girl from a trailer park in Oregon brazenly tried to hobble her elegant arch rival as both skaters battled for Olympic gold and all the endorsement dough that went with it.
(Credit Image: © Globe Photos/ZUMAPRESS.com)
The deep divide between the two teen skaters was reflected by their back stories as well as their performance styles: Harding powered through technical routines, while Kerrigan gracefully danced on the ice.
Kerrigan, highly marketable and sought for endorsements, was third in the '92 Olympics and had won the U.S. title in '93. But she arrived at the '94 Olympic trials an obstacle in Harding's path. In a plan allegedly hatched with Harding's ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, a hired henchman jumped Kerrigan at practice and delivered a whack to her knee with an iron pipe that took her out of the competition.
The incident instantly painted Kerrigan as a victim and Harding an evil-hearted poor sport. Who would do such a horrible thing? Proud of her street smarts and blue-collar skills as drag-racer and mechanic, Harding burst onto the skating scene like some early-day slumdog millionaire. She never wore the silver spoon of her skating peers but she was incredibly talented -- only the second woman in the world and the first American woman to land a triple axel. According to figure skating coach Diane Rawlinson, who plucked Harding from a broken Portland home and gave her a shot on the ice in the mid-1980s, the teen girl would have had nothing in her life if it weren’t for skating. But the sport that brought her fame would also be her downfall.
U.S. figure skating officials ultimately voted Kerrigan onto the Olympic team despite the fact she didn’t compete at the Nationals. Wails of “Why me” while clutching her clobbered knee may have contributed to the sympathy she was afforded. Disciplinary action was considered against Harding, who responded with the threat of a $25 million lawsuit. Both backed down days before the Games, but the melodrama continued.
While the sordid attack was reprehensible on so many levels, it was absolutely terrific for the sport of figure skating. On Feb. 23, 1994, at the Lillehammer Olympics, the Harding-Kerrigan showdown caused nearly half of all television viewers to glue their eyes to their sets to watch the saga. It was the highest-rated television program of the past quarter-century, and it’s still the sixth highest-rated show in history.
Harding arrived in Lillehammer out of shape and immediately crashed out of medal contention by slipping to 10th place after the short program, while Kerrigan held first place going into the long-program final.
During the long-program climax, Harding quit a minute into her routine but begged the judges for a Mulligan because her skate lace had broken. She exited in eighth place while Russia’s Oksana Bauil, via a controversial 5-4 judges’ decision, edged out Kerrigan for the gold.
It is not just Olympic historians who look back on the Harding/Kerrigan incident for its unprecedented impact. Television shows such as Seinfeld, SNL, and every late-night talk show parodied the pair, a stage show, Tonya & Nancy: The Rock Opera, was mounted, and at least one TV movie was produced. Even the music industry was influenced by these two skaters.
Loudon Wainwright wrote the following lyrics for his song Tonya Twirls:
And it seemed like she was lying
About what she didn’t know
& then she started crying in the media side show
In practice she kept falling down more than the other girls
With their gliding & their sliding
& their picture perfect twirls
Silver medalist Kerrigan -- one of those picture-perfect girls -- went on to marry her agent and is now the mother of two boys and a girl. She appears in skating shows, acts as a skating commentator and was recently hired by NBC to report on figure skating at the Sochi Games. NBC will also air a documentary on Kerrigan and Harding, with Mary Carillo interviewing both, during the Olympics Games in February.
So what happened to Harding? Since the Kerrigan attack, the former skater has been regularly in the news, throwing hubcaps at boyfriends, being cited for drunk driving, serving time for tax evasion, starring in exploitation films and appearing on celebrity boxing. She was even called out by Obama during his first presidential campaign when he joked about negative campaigning by saying he wouldn't kneecap the person ahead of him and do "a Tonya Harding." (btw, she slammed Obama during a subsequent interview for his remark).
A good story, however, is never just black and white and almost always has more than two sides. Those who want to know more about what may have compelled Harding should check out ESPN’s documentary The Price of Gold. The film sheds new light on the narrative of how one American skater triumphed against adversity while the other sank to the bottom. Part tabloid cover-story, The Price of Gold focuses primarily on Harding, whose quest to become the best skater in the world was so obviously tied to her desperate need for validation that it plays like a Greek tragedy. While Kerrigan cannot be faulted for the attack, Harding's motivations -- and the pressure many athletes face -- may surprise some viewers.
Was the incident one of the worst train wrecks in sporting history? Perhaps. An anniversary worth celebrating? Not really. But only something as weirdly true and impossibly real as the Harding-Kerrigan drama could remain newsworthy for 20 long years.
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