I was in Boston over the weekend to bring our daughter back to college, and noticed tour busses driving down the city’s snow-covered streets with posters advertising the US Figure Skating Championships, happening now at the Fleet Center.
Vicki Doudera here. Those same championships were marked twenty years ago today with one of the most bizarre crimes in sports history – the attack on figure skater Nancy Kerrigan, orchestrated by the ex-husband of one of her teammates, Tonya Harding.
Many of you reading this post remember what happened on January 6, 1994. Nancy Kerrigan was walking off the ice in a Detroit arena when a large man used a metal baton to club her leg just above the knee. In the days that followed, a conspiracy unfolded, with figure skater Harding denying any involvement. Two months after the incident, Kerrigan’s injury had healed enough for her to compete in the Lillehammer Olympics. She won a silver medal, but the crime was far from solved.
Eventually the parties involved were brought to justice, including Harding, who pleaded guilty to a felony of hindering the prosecution. She paid $160,000 in fines and performed more than 400 hour of community service. Harding was also stripped of the national title she earned in 1994 and booted out of figure skating for life.
Twenty years later, what still puzzles me is not so much the crime itself, but the media’s portrayal of these two young women. Although both came from decidedly working-class backgrounds, we came to view Harding as “white trash,” while Kerrigan, a Massachusetts tomboy who played pond hockey with her brothers, was painted as a privileged ice queen.
Perhaps because creating characters is my job, I wonder why the media – and ultimately, all of us who followed the story – chose to cast these two women in such opposing roles, when in fact they had more in common than not. Was it because one crossed over from competitive to greedy? Or because it made for a better story? Nancy Kerrigan was later criticized for speaking her mind, when she had every right to be furious over what happened. Did her outspokenness contradict what the media had carefully constructed? The image of Nancy as a cool, composed performer, instead of a feisty young athlete?
How much of what we believe to be true about people is, in fact, true? Must characters in conflict always be opposites? Or are there some instances when two people with very similar wants and desires collide?
These questions swirl in my head as I begin my next novel, but they haunt me as well when I remember this strange time and crime. When you recall the Nancy/Tonya saga, what stays with you?
My girls were involved in competitive figure skating when all this happened. We used to tell the girls that all they needed to do was their best; some days the ice wins. But the “win at any cost” mentality always lingered around the rink . . . there was the time a young lady tore her skating dress and when I offered to repair it so that she could skate, she was dumbfounded. She couldn’t believe I would help her because she would be competing against my daughter. The sadness of that has stayed with me all these years . . . and, as for Nancy and Tonya, how unbelievably sad that one young woman could justify in her own mind such a horrible attack simply to eliminate the competition. How can winning anything possibly be that important?
Wow, Joan — you’ve got an insight into that sequined world that eludes me. Your story about repairing the dress says it all, doesn’t it?
To attempt an answer to your question — how can winning anything possibly be that important — in the case of Tonya, it seems to have come down to pure greed. With Lance Armstrong, greed was probably secondary to ego.
We used to travel with every conceivable thing we might possibly need for the girls, so repairing the dress was no problem and I was pleased that the young lady was able to skate her program. Repairing the mindset is so much more difficult . . . .
I ended up feeling a bit sorry for Tonya. When you only have one shot at success, the forces behind that can be maddening. I’ve known people whose entire identity became what they did and when they lost the job or the skill, it was awful to watch them crumble. Very interesting post today.
Thanks, John. It’s hard to believe the whole thing was 20 years ago…
Vicki, I recall hearing that when Harding was very young, her mother wouldn’t let her leave the ice to use the bathroom because of the cost of skating time at the rink and that Tonya would wet her pants on the ice. I don’t know if it’s true but I do know that children can become the victims of their parents’ ambitions and greed in competitive sports, leaving the kids scarred forever. I thought the whole objective of having kids in sports was to teach kids how to compete fairly, instill self-confidence and take pride in honest effort, regardless if they win. Our culture rewards just the opposite.
Ugh, Michele — that’s a really sad commentary. Don’t you feel there’s a real parallel with the beauty queen pageant mentality? Certainly Joan Emerson’s experiences bear this out as well.
I agree — sports can be so beneficial, and certainly they were for me, but there is an underbelly that is really, really, ugly.