A Brief History
On June 30, 1994, Tonya Harding was banned for life from participating in figure skating events. She is currently competing on season twenty-six of Dancing with the Stars, titled Dancing with the Stars: Athletes. The season premiered on April 30, 2018 on the ABC network. The four-week season, the shortest ever, features a cast of current and former athletes.
Shortly before the 1994 national figure skating championships which were being held in Detroit, Nancy Kerrigan was hit in the knee in what would become known as the “whack heard round the world”. The attack was later shown to have been orchestrated by Jeff Gillooly, ex-husband of fellow figure-skater, Tonya Harding. Both women had been national champions, had stood on the world championship podiums and had participated in the previous 1992 Winter Olympics as well.
The 1994 Winter Olympics were somewhat of an anomaly. Normally, they would have taken place in the same year as the Summer Olympics in 1996, however, it had been decided to split the Games into different years, with the Winter Olympics being bumped up 2 years instead of occurring at the regular interval of 4 years.
That year (partially due to Nancy Kerrigan’s poor performance at the 1993 World Championships), the US had only secured 2 spots for individual ladies skaters on the Olympic team. To ensure that one of those would go to Tonya Harding, her ex-husband hired hit men to literally knock her biggest rival out of contention.
The ensuing media frenzy moved figure skating onto the entertainment map, into the primetime slot, made cash cows out of the (un-)willing participants (Nancy Kerrigan: “Whyyyy, Whyyy, Whyyy?!!!”) and boosted the sales of tickets for shows like Stars on Ice, with everyone profiting except for Tonya Harding, herself.
At the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, Nancy Kerrigan, who had been awarded a spot on the Olympic team, despite not being able to compete at the preliminary U.S. Championships, sailed on the support of public opinion and on her own inflated “I’ll show you” attitude and took home the silver. This placing was probably better than she would have done had the knee-hitting attack not taken place because traditionally she had been an inconsistent skater whose nerves often caused her to break under pressure. Tonya Harding, on the other hand, had won the U.S. National Championships, but at the Olympics she only managed a disappointing 8th place and gave the figure skating world one last “the truth is stranger than fiction” moments when her skate laces broke and she cried to the referee until she was allowed to skate in a later spot.
Now it has never been conclusively proven that Tonya Harding was an active conspirator or that her ex-husband was merely trying to re-ingratiate himself. What is known is that Tonya Harding admitted to knowing of the plan after the fact and to not alarming the authorities. She claims it was because her ex had threatened to kill her if she did.
Whatever may really have happened, she was deemed guilty by the U.S. Figure Skating Association, the USFSA, stripped of her 1994 U.S. Championship title and banned from life from participating in USFSA-run events as either a skater or a coach. So, the woman in whose disgrace a multi-million dollar figure skating industry arose was left without a source of income and had to resort to farcicle ways to make ends meet.
In the words of the author of this article’s father, “What was figure skating’s loss, was wrestling’s gain…”.
Question for students (and subscribers): Should Tonya Harding have been banned from figure skating? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Baughman, Cynthia. Women On Ice: Feminist Responses to the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan Spectacle. Routledge, 1995.
Also, on one last note, Nancy Kerrigan went on to inspire a character in the 1994 video game Tattoo Assassins. See this screenshot from the game for the obviously similar back story for Tattoo Assassins‘s Karla Keller. You may also want to see here for the hilarious ways Karla, again a character inspired by Nancy Kerrigan, dispatches her opponents in the game (yes, she actually can turn her opponent into a hot dog for some reason…).