This article was originally published on August 19, 2016. We’re bringing it to your attention again in light of the premiere of I, Tonya this week.
Whenever the Olympics roll around, there’s always something worth getting fired up over — whether you’re rooting for a breakout athlete or arguing over doping or sexism. But, if Michael Phelps staring murderously at his rival Chad Le Clos taught us anything, it’s that a good, old-fashioned athletic rivalry of Olympic proportions provides the ultimate drama. Nothing against Phelps’ daggers, but the standard for inter-Olympian conflict was set (and is still held) by figure skaters Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding, way back in 1994 at the Winter Olympic Games in Lillehammer, Norway.
We still have a couple years to wait before the next Winter Olympics in Seoul, but Rio’s summer games (and the non-stop drama that comes with them) have us in the mood to revisit this story. In fact, any time is a good time to look back on what happened between Kerrigan and Harding, as it still has a surprising hold on pop culture. Most recently, we found out that Margot Robbie has been cast in the lead role in I, Tonya. But the news that the scandal is going to get a big-budget Hollywood retelling comes only after multiple documentaries on the story have been aired over the years — and after the creation of at least one short-lived hallway museum went viral.
The thing is though, 1994 was a long time ago; it’s hard to remember exactly what happened. Ahead, we dive (once again) into the details and reveal the surprising (and frustrating) reasons why we still care about this, more than 20 years later.
Here’s What Happened
In the winter of 1994, Kerrigan and Harding were preparing for the upcoming world championship competition that preceded the Olympic Games in Norway. This would be the second Olympics in which the pair would compete (Kerrigan took home the bronze while Harding placed just behind her in fourth back in 1992).
One January night in Detroit, after one of the final practices before the U.S. Women’s Championships, Kerrigan was struck with a baton above her right knee (her landing leg) by a man who, it would be revealed later, was hired by Harding’s ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly. The doctor who treated Kerrigan told the New York Times at the time that “he was clearly trying to debilitate her.”
With Kerrigan injured, Harding then went on to place first in the Championships in Detroit while Kerrigan was on the mend. By the time the Olympics came around in February, basically everything about the attack was public knowledge — Gillooly, Kerrigan’s attacker, and two other men would go to prison for planning and carrying out the attack, but not before implicating Harding in the plans, as well.
At this point, the U.S. Olympic Committee considered removing Harding from the team. She responded by filing a $25 million lawsuit against the Committee. And so, she was allowed to compete in Norway. Kerrigan, who had thankfully recovered in time to compete, took home the silver medal. Harding placed eighth.
It remains somewhat unclear what role Harding had in the attack. Gilooly told the FBI he discussed it with her beforehand, but she only admitted in court that she found about it shortly after it happened and that she helped hinder the investigation. Then, six months after the attack, the U.S. Figure Skating Association (USFSA) stripped Harding of her titles (including the World Champion title she won while Kerrigan was still recovering) following an investigation of their own.
“By a preponderance of the evidence, the five members of the panel concluded that she had prior knowledge and was involved prior to the incident,” the USFSA panel chairman William Hybl told The Washington Post at the time. “This is based on civil standards, not criminal standards.”
She was also banned from competing in any USFSA-sponsored event — amateur or professional — from then on. The panel also concluded: “Ms. Harding’s actions as they related to the assault on Nancy Kerrigan evidence a clear disregard for fairness, good sportsmanship, and ethical behavior.”
The attack ended Harding’s career; she maintains that she didn’t know about the attack before it happened. Kerrigan retired from active competition, but went on to skate professionally in several ice skating shows.
How The Media Reacted
Many reporters were at the rink for the fateful final practice before the World Championship, and the aftermath of the attack was infamously caught on video. Leading up to the Games, national news stations played and replayed the heart-wrenching footage, while reporters camped outside of Kerrigan’s Massachusetts home.
The story became a tabloid sensation. While it’s undeniable that Kerrigan was viciously attacked, outlets took liberty to portray the women as they saw fit: Harding was from the wrong side of the tracks, while Kerrigan was an elegant athlete who was born to win. Harding was scrappy and misunderstood, while Kerrigan was cold and stuck-up. Time and yet another documentary has revealed that, of course, both women are more complex than the simplistic roles they were cast in.
It was sadly inevitable that elements of Kerrigan’s and Harding’s respective personalities and backgrounds would be used to amplify any real competition between them. The media frenzy clearly had an effect on both of them.
Kerrigan, ever the perfectionist and known to suffer from nerves, told People, “I’ve been a fighter all my life,” and told Newsweek that she had “a strange feeling there’s going to be a big applause when I go out there” on the rink. Meanwhile, Harding was so on edge that she started crying when a lace broke on her skates at the Games just before she went out on the ice, which almost led to disqualification. (Ultimately, the judges allowed her to fix her lace and skate later in the competition.) Regardless of which narrative you favored, Harding came away looking frazzled, while Kerrigan seemed brave and unflappable.
As aggressive as the media coverage was back then, can you imagine the circus if this went down today? Twitter would flood with #TeamTonya and #TeamNancy crusaders. Women’s media sites (including, no doubt, Refinery29) would launch think piece after think piece on what it means to pit two young, talented women against each other and how their respective appearances and socio-economic backgrounds have affected their lives and portrayal in the media. Of course, we can (and do) write after-the-fact think pieces on Harding and Kerrigan, but when we do that, we get to have an emotional distance provided by time.
Maybe that’s why we keep coming back to it; we still aren’t sure what to believe. We’ll soon see Kerrigan and Harding’s story dramatized in I, Tonya, and it remains to be seen if Harding will be portrayed as a villain or as a human being with ambitions — and if Kerrigan will be depicted as a total victim or a cold ice princess.
Why This Still Matters
It’s interesting to look back at this now, in an era in which the media and spectators still seem to fall back into sexism — especially when it comes to female-coded sports such as figure skating and gymnastics. For example, it’s reasonable for the media to call attention to an exciting rivalry, such as the one between Michael Phelps and Chad Le Clos or the one between American swimmer Lilly King and Yulia Efimova. But why do we celebrate these rivalries and also feel the need to pit female teammates against each other (and then punish them for it)?
For example, the Gold-medal winning Final Five team from this year’s Summer Olympics have been cast as a tight-knit crew. Aly Raisman is “Mom” and “Grandma” to her teammates, while Simone Biles and Laurie Hernandez are the inseparable roommates — and, sadly, Madison Kocian is probably the sweet-but-forgotten middle child in all of this. But the moment Gabby Douglas exhibited a trace of disappointment or distress, we abandoned this harmonious image of Team USA, choosing instead to focus on (and cruelly judge) Douglas’ attitude.
Even today, we as a viewing public (who prefer the Olympics be more soap opera than simple athletic event) don’t just love a good rivalry; we seem to crave a salacious and sinister one, especially if the athletes are women.
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