Twenty years ago this week, Nancy Kerrigan was attacked with a metal rod to her knee while leaving Detroit’s Cobo Arena two days before the 1994 U.S. Figure Skating Championship. The assailant was an associate of Jeff Gillooly, ex-husband of Kerrigan’s main competitor, Tonya Harding.
The ensuing media frenzy turned the Winter Olympics into must-see TV, with almost half the country watching the women’s short program six weeks later. Harding continued to deny any involvement with the attack as a narrative of jealousy, greed and incompetence built up around her. She ultimately pleaded guilty to a felony of hindering the prosecution of the attackers and was sentenced to three years’ probation, 500 hours of community service and a $160,000 fine.
Harding maintains her innocence, a claim that falls on the deaf ears of a public that long ago concluded her guilt. She doesn’t do herself any favors by continuing to displace blame and failing to take any responsibility for how the past 20 years have unfolded. In a recent installment of ESPN’s excellent "30 for 30" documentary series, "The Price of Gold," the 43-year-old attempts to play victim, blaming the public attention and fallout for her disappointing life.
It’s a familiar pattern: She blamed the attack on her husband, the eighth-place finish at the Olympics on her broken skate lace, and now faults the media for her fall from grace. Harding fails to realize that she played right into the media’s hands by living up to the image of her as a brutish, loudmouthed brat and a convenient foil for Kerrigan’s image as a genteel ice queen, which was unfairly placed given her own blue-collar upbringing.
The story was easy to frame and featured all the elements of a soap-opera catfight: action, violence, jealousy and, most of all, good versus evil. That last part was already present, but the media took it to another level by casting the good girl- bad girl dichotomy through the lens of class warfare. Much was made of Harding’s humble beginnings, which were at odds with the refined elegance of figure skating. She grew up hunting and fishing, at one point living in a trailer park; she smoked cigarettes and spoke her mind. It wasn’t a far stretch to compare her with Kerrigan, who was on paper her polar opposite, with her Irish name and East Coast upbringing. Never mind that she grew up in an equally humble home - her father was a welder who worked three jobs and drove the Zamboni at her local ice rink to pay for her lessons - the tale was just too easy to tell, with the contrast between easily dismissed white trash and the kind of blue-collar background that’s more identifiable to the middle class.
However manufactured, the perceived class divide between the two translated to the ice, where Kerrigan shined as a picture of grace and refinement, winning over judges’ hearts with her artistry and style. Harding exuded sheer athleticism, an aggressive skater whose power allowed her to do things in the rink that were previously thought outside a woman’s physical capabilities. She became the first American woman to land the triple axel in competition, during her free skate at the 1991 U.S. championship. The jump requires incredible strength upon landing and remains elusive - to this day, only one other American woman has landed the triple axel in sanctioned competition: Kimmie Meissner in 2005.
Harding had a chance to revolutionize women’s figure skating, to become a spokeswoman for a skating style that favors the athletic over the demure. (Just think about what the Williams sisters have done to propel the power game in women’s tennis, another sport that historically embraced gentility and, by extension, traditional femininity.) Unfortunately, her aggressiveness followed her off the ice, and her big mouth and unchecked ambition got in the way. She took her assigned role of trailer trash and became the villain everybody already thought she was.
Kavitha A. Davidson is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes about sports. Follow her on Twitter at kavithadavidson.
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