This year marks the 20th anniversary of one of the strangest incidents in the history of sports. After a practice session for the 1994 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Detroit, 24-year-old Nancy Kerrigan was walking back to the dressing room when she was struck in her right kneecap by a man brandishing a police baton. News cameras present at the arena rushed to the corridor and caught Kerrigan on the floor wailing in pain, “Why? Why?”
It was a good question, but the answer would prove to be baffling. Was the man working for someone? Who? Suspicion fell almost immediately on Kerrigan’s chief competitor at the Championships, and at the upcoming Winter Olympics, 23-year-old Tonya Harding.
Beneath the oh-so ‘90s made-for-TV movie trashiness of the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan affair there is a layer of pitch black comedy. The grotesque humor here is all but unavoidable because at the heart of this crime story is a scheme so moronic, hatched by criminals of such bumbling ineptitude, that it almost seems designed to draw laughs. And yet, there is another layer, deeper down, where the story of these two figure skaters resembles nothing less than a tragedy. It’s a tale of class, gender, and ambition that only becomes more disturbing the harder one looks at it.
The two women presented a ready-made contrast that the news media pounced on. Kerrigan was a graceful skater with strong financial backing, designer costumes, and the kind of delicate beauty that gave her an aura of a figure skating ice princess. Harding, on the other hand, was a power skater who had made a name for herself by being the first American woman to complete a triple axel in competition. She was pretty but in an earthier way that would have been normal for virtually any other athletic endeavor besides figure skating. If Harding and Kerrigan had been skiers or distance runners, the contrast in their physical appearance likely would have never become such an issue.
Over the next few months, the story continued to grab headlines as the peculiar cast of characters who made up Harding’s inner circle came into focus. Harding’s abusive husband, Jeff Gillooly, turned out to be a sleaze straight out of central casting, while his friend, and Harding’s bodyguard, was a lumbering dolt named Shawn Eckhardt. As the investigation into the attack intensified, and as the Olympics got ever closer, police uncovered evidence (including phone records and charges to a Visa card, as well as a $6,500 pay off) linking Gillooly and Eckhardt to a Portland man named Shane Stant. Once Stant was identified as the attacker, the pieces fell into place. The only question became “Was Tonya behind the attack?”
The question followed Harding (and Kerrigan, who had recovered in time to compete) into the Olympics. Under almost unbearable pressure, the two took to the ice. Kerrigan had a magnificent showing, earning a Silver (many observers believe she should have taken the gold). Harding’s performance, however, was a complete disaster. Late to the ice, flustered after a bad start, she complained to the judges about problems with her skate laces and ultimately left the arena in tears.
A few weeks after the games, Harding pled guilty to conspiring to hinder the prosecution of the case. She maintained, and has maintained for twenty years, that she knew nothing about the attack before it occurred.
The 20 year anniversary of the scandal has resulted in some looks back. ESPN released a new documentary in its “30 For 30” series entitled The Price Of Gold from director Nanette Burstein, while NBC released Nancy & Tonya in conjunction with the 2014 Winter Olympics.
Burstein’s film, in particular, is a riveting piece of filmmaking. Perhaps because Kerrigan refused to be interviewed for the film, The Price Of Gold focuses on Harding. In a sense, this is only fitting. Kerrigan’s only part in this drama, after all, was as the object of jealousy. Her perspective deserves to be heard (as it is in the NBC film), but as she herself has made clear she was dragged into this ordeal against her will.
No, the main character in this story is Tonya Harding. Burstein’s film makes use of home video footage shot by a childhood friend who wanted to document the young skater’s pursuit of her skating dream. We see a teenage Tonya, hair frizzed up and face covered in make up, as she tries to inform her alcoholic mother over the phone of some accomplishment on the ice. The scene is heartbreaking, a living demonstration of the impoverished, emotionally stunted world Tonya Harding grew up in. Trailer park poor, Harding was physically abused by her mother throughout her childhood. A childhood friend who approached Harding’s skating coach begging her to report the abuse was turned away with a blunt truth: if Tonya was taken away from her mother, the skating lessons would cease and Tonya would be lost.
There’s a cruel irony at the heart of Harding’s story. In some sense she was cursed by her talent. Supremely gifted, she was good enough to be a national champion, good enough to represent the United States at the Olympics—but with her homemade costumes and working class tomboyishness she was never enough of a “lady.” It must have felt as if she’d been given the dream of Olympic gold—of success, of adoration, of love—almost as a torment. One can’t watch her interviews in The Price Of Gold and not feel for her. The old questions remain, of course. Was Harding behind the attack? Was she really sitting innocently in the next room as her scumbag husband and his sleazy friends planned the assault? Later on, all the goons involved would implicate her, would say she was behind the whole thing. We may never know the truth, of course, but when watching Harding, one finds a woman still seething with resentment, not only at Gillooy (which is understandable) and the media (which is also understandable), but also, curiously, at Kerrigan. As Harding mocks Kerrigan as a pampered crybaby, it’s hard not to reflect back on the nature of the crime itself.
In 1994, facing problems at home with Gillooly amid rumors that she’d been drinking too much, Harding had come into the championships noticeably out of shape and unfocused. Unlike Kerrigan, who had signed rich endorsement deals, Harding was strapped for cash. In the days before the competition, she had some rough practice sessions. Then Kerrigan was attacked, suddenly and inexplicably. That alone doesn’t mean that Harding was a party to the assault, of course, but the crime itself only truly makes sense in the context of Tonya Harding’s panic and desperation.
The Tonya Harding we meet in The Price Of Gold is a woman who has been through a lot. After she plead guilty to hindering the investigation, Harding was stripped of her titles and barred from skating competitively for life. Further humiliations followed. Gillooly sold an old homemade sex tape to porn outlets. To make a living, Harding tried wrestling and boxing. Meanwhile, Kerrigan married her manager and made millions off of endorsements and skating exhibitions. Harding has remarried and had a child, and she tells us she worked in landscaping and did some car racing. If she still seems like she feels betrayed by life, it’s tough to blame her.
Read all posts by Jake Hinkson for Criminal Element.