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Examining A Figure Skating Rivalry: Tonya and Nancy

It must be very hard for a millennial to understand the fuss around the Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding figure skating scandal in the run-up to the 1994 Olympics.

If you're of a certain age, though - whether you're a figure skating fan or not, and I am decidedly no fan of figure skating - the Shakespearean story of Harding and Kerrigan still engages, and still grabs peoples' attention, twenty years later.

Why, though?  Why, twenty years later, in a sport I care little, does the story still grab me?  Why did I spend time out of my life watching dueling NBC and ESPN documentaries on the subject, and Google multiple stories about Jeff Gilooly, idiot "bodyguards", and the whole sordid affair?

I think it's because the story, even twenty years later, is like opium.

The addictive story, even now, has everything.  Everything.  The woman that fought for everything, perhaps crossing over to the dark side to get her chance at Olypic Gold, vs. the woman who, despite her pleas to the contrary, had a well-financed team behind her, especially in the run-up to the Olympics.

A mysterious crime that still isn't completely solved.  Idiot criminals.  Shakespearean tragedy.  Icy rivalry. Flawed heroes.  Heroic feats of athleticism.  Recovery from tragedy - and a triumph against all odds.  There's even a twist of an ending to the story, mired in the weird politics of figure skating judges.

The real tragedy, though, is in the two women - still trapped in the narrative, twenty years later, perhaps never to fully emerge from it.

The highest-rated Olympic broadcast ever was the Harding/Kerrigan Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway.  And it is the Kerrigan/Harding Olympics - there's no other way to describe them, if you lived through them.

Nobody in America remembers Vreni Schneider winning three Alpine medals.  Few remember Peter Forsberg converting an exciting penalty shot to deliver a thrilling shootout victory against Canada for gold in men's ice hockey.

But if you say the words "Kerrigan" or even just "Tonya" in regards to 1994, a stunning number of people remember.

It's amazing, when you watch the ESPN 30 for 30 "The Price of Gold" and the NBC mini-doc featuring Mary Carillo, how much you learn about the two skaters.  In fact, they are best taken together, each documentary cancelling out the excesses of the other.  ("The Price of Gold" is available to stream on Netflix, while the NBC mini-doc. while not easy to find, is still watchable off of the NBC Sochi app.)

Where "The Price of Gold" shines is telling the story of Harding's immense odds in simply being in a position to go to the Olympics.

Tonya was the skating prodigy who didn't grow up with money or a stable family - two giant strikes in a sport that needs a heaping amount of both.  The third strike might have been being born in Portland, not exactly known as a mecca for developing ice skating champions, where the only skating rink is in a shopping mall.

But Tonya was a singular talent - there's little question of this.  She could perform feats of athleticism that others could not.  She didn't fit the typical mold of a figure skater, a point well-made in both documentaries, but she did have a heap of athletic talent, and a stubborn will to try to move the sport in a different direction.

My extended family lives in and around the Portland area, perhaps one reason why the story sticks with me today.  They may not be thrilled with Tonya Harding and the rest of the story, but some in the area admit at the time, there was a lot of pride in a local kid working against the odds to become a skating champion.

Nancy Kerrigan, too, didn't start out rich, coming from a middle-class family in Stoneham, Mass, located about a half hour from where my father grew up.

She grew up north of Boston, a place where hockey pervades, where there are many ice rinks and a culture of ice sports.

Unlike Tonya, Nancy played by the rules of figure skating, climbing the ladder, ultimately taking a bronze medal in Albertville, France (a place where I, incidentally, skiied a bunch of times when I was a kid).

Ms. Kerrigan rightfully bristles when people think of her as entitled, as if her success took no less hard work than Harding's.  Figure skating takes an insane amount of work - countless unseen hours working on the athletic skills to become the best in America, then the world.  It's supposed to look easy, but it doesn't come easy.

But even if her way to the Olympics was hard, Tonya's was harder - all the same challenges as Nancy Kerrigan, but with the additional challenges of not having money or a cast of hundreds around her.

It seems clear that there was some element of true rivalry between the two women, based on the original footage from the documentaries.  The looks, and the body language, say a lot.

The full story - a botched attempt to injure Kerrigan by a bunch of goons with links to Harding and her ex-husband, the ensuing media circus, Nancy's miraculous recovery from the injury attempt, and heroic four minutes in the long program, coupled with an element of self-destruction with Tonya Harding's skating time at the Olympics - is part of sports history now.

Harding's involvement with the crime - despite the certainty in which both documentaries in which it is presented - is not certain, and importantly, she never admitted, nor was convicted, of racketeering in the crime.  (Yet despite this fact, she was banned from US Figure skating - which, the more one thinks about it, is extraordinary.)

Even reliving it though the documentaries it still seems surreal that it was a giant, nationwide story in the run-up to the Olympics.  But more importantly, the media then, as now, plugs the two women into the story as characters in a play rather than real people.

Kerrigan never really got her just due from the work and rehab that was involved in the comeback to allow her to compete in the Olympics.  The NBC documentary was right to highlight that aspect of her story and to emphasize how extraordinary it was.

And - here's the zinger! - Oksana Baiul, out of the Ukraine, skated after Nancy Kerrigan in the Olympics, and - in a split decision! - won the gold medal!  In a controversial performance!

When Muhammad Ali was winning boxing matches and showing the world his athletic - and celebrity - talents, his actions transcended the sport and were able to be cast as literature, Ali representing the new order, and, say, Sonny Liston as the old order.  The Kerrigan/Harding "bout" in the Olympics had, incredibly, the same literary quality, even unfolding at the same book-like pace.

It engaged everyone.  The National Enquirer, SportsCenter - everyone.  The story is what made that the highest-rated program in Olympic history.

Yet as perfect as the narrative is - aren't these people human beings?  Don't you have to constantly fight the urge to stereotype Kerrigan as the glamour "ice princess", a term used by both documentaries, and Harding as the tragic heroine that could have been world champion had it not been for a movie moment where she turned to the dark side?

Even today, you can see both women trapped in both roles.

Kerrigan has a whole different life now than the glamorous figure skating star life, married with kids.

Harding, too, is now married with a child as well.

But the story still pervades their lives through no fault of their own, even when you fast forward to today.

Kerrigan's home live involves a stable relationship and, while perhaps not a member of the 1%, does involve a somewhat comfortable, relatively stable life.  (Not tackled by either documentary was how US Figure Skating allowed her and her family to have that stable life, through skating tours and the like.)

Harding's life has been anything but stable, veering from celebrity boxing to using her name to offer comment on the world's dumbest criminals.  (NBC's documentary sniffs disapprovingly at Harding's life choices - as if she had this boatload of choices after U.S. Figure Skating chose to ban her from the sport.  As for me, I'll reserve judgement.)

When you watch both women in the documentaries, you cannot separate yourself from the same class and regional bounds from 20 years ago.  That's probably the point of both documentaries, too.

Harding is still as West Coast as ever, and scrappy.  Kerrigan is as East Coast as ever, and refined.

Kerrigan, who was indeed a victim and a great athlete, still lets the veil down sometimes and gets defensive, especially with her infamous "oops-open-mic" comments in terms of dissing Disney and snarky Olympic comments about Baiul emerging from the locker room.  (NBC's documentary went way too far in talking about Nancy's excuses for both slip-ups, excuses that ring really hollow.)

Similarly, Harding, unapologetic as ever, was easy to provoke in regards to making personal attacks on people who wronged her.  Though personal responsibility for her lack of Olympic medals was present, if you were looking, it was hard to find, perhaps, in her litany of grievances against others.

And their actions and reactions - even today! - elicit some sort of opinion.  History is not unanimously in one camp or another.  The documentaries themselves, I don't think, change people's opinions about the two skaters.

I guess I just keep thinking: what do you do, when you're trapped in this narrative?  How can you really move on?

You were the center of the universe for a brief moment in time.  The center of a story - whether true, or not.  It affected your life.  It's what you'll be remembered for, for good or for ill.

Neither skater came out as America's Sweetheart through the story.  Both are resentful of that fact - and angry about what the media got wrong, angry about the box that the media has put them in.

It's easy to say to these people, who spend the better part of the first half of their lives honing their skills in this strange, athletic yet artistic sport, that they should just get over it and quietly fade into the background, and retire with dignity... in your mid-20s... even if they've been banned from the sport they loved.  Even if some judges, out of nowhere, denied them an Olympic gold medal.

Here I am, a guy who cares not one bit about figure skating, finding myself watching the documentaries, using time better spent evaluating Holy Cross' incoming recruiting class or, perhaps, cooking dinner for my family to revisit this story that engages me no less now than it did then.

Maybe it's because I have familial links to both sides of their rivalry; maybe, just like everyone else in 1994, I was caught up in the story.

But what captures my attention more now is not the story, as addictive as it is.  It's the actors trapped in the narrative that ought to have a better chance of escaping it.


Anonymous said…
Very insightful commentary. Especially coming from an non-figure skating fan. This incident really is the perfect human interest story.

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