Moment in History: The Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan Incident

tonya harding nancy kerrigan

Of all figure skating scandals, the 2002 Salt Lake City judging incident shook the figure skating world and has changed the sport forever. However, the most salacious of figure skating scandals is definitely the one between two U.S. ladies and rivals: Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan

During the 1994 U.S. National Championships, Tonya Harding’s bodyguard and her ex-husband hired another man to break Nancy Kerrigan’s leg. The attacker, Shane Stant, managed to hit Kerrigan on the leg but the resulting injury was just a bruise and no bones were broken. Kerrigan withdrew from the National championships and Harding won but both were still named to the Olympic team for the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics. There, Harding ended up in 8th place while Kerrigan won the silver medal. However, the truth of the whole attack came to light and Harding was stripped of her titles and received a lifelong ban from participating in events run by the U.S. Figure Skating Association, which effectively ended her amateur skating career.

Recently, ESPN released a documentary called, The Price of Gold,  about the incident complicating the narrative between the two rivals. A friend of mine also posted this article from the Slate that shines some light as to how this story might have more to it than just a jealous rivalry. To add my two cents, I’ll talk about a few things that the documentary might mention as well as how this pertains to the current controversy over the U.S. ladies being sent to the Sochi Olympics.

Somehow, Kerrigan and Harding escaped my notice back in the day even though I had been watching figure skating before they arrived on the scene. Somehow, my memory skips from cheering for Kristi Yamaguchi to cheering for Michelle Kwan and Sasha Cohen to restarting my love for the sport after watching Tessa & Scott’s 2008 FD. Still, from what I know today, I do know that both girls were raised in working class families, however, from what I gather, Tonya Harding seems to have had a very difficult childhood. Apparently, her mother was abusive and Harding lived in many different homes, including a trailer park. This shouldn’t be an excuse for what she did in the past but there are certain aspects of her career that I can sympathize with.

Skating is an expensive sport. Coaching fees, fees from working with specialists, costumes, getting a custom-fitted boot and blade, travel expenses – all of these add up and the truth of the matter is that figure skating has become an elite sport in the sense that it’s probably one of the most expensive sports to participate in. To earn most of their money, skaters need endorsements from sponsors to fund their training and competition and in order to do that, skaters need to succeed in the sport and… be marketable. Tonya Harding was a trailer park girl without classically pretty looks while her main rival, Nancy Kerrigan, came from a hard-working working class family and had a classic regal look. At the time, one lady’s backstory and looks were more attractive than the other and I think the following scene definitely rings true in this situation.

Tonya Harding wasn’t going to be killed but she needed to be liked in order to get sponsors to help keep her family away from hunger and want. (Happy Hunger Games!) I don’t know what was going through her mind back in 1994 but I wouldn’t be surprised if she thought that she would be more endorsements if she won an Olympic medal. The Slate article argues that Harding would’ve never gotten those endorsements anyways and whether or not that’s true is up for debate.

What’s your take on the Harding/Kerrigan incident? Let me know in the comments!

~The Rinkside Cafe


5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Hazura Jane
    Mar 05, 2014 @ 12:56:43

    Both of these women had skating talent of Olympic gold-winning potential.

    Nancy Kerrigan made a conscious decision to drop her tomboy approach to figure skating in order to make her visual display on ice for the judges more in line with what they (the judges) valued in that era.

    Tonya Harding didn’t drop her athletic approach to skating, nor should she have. It was her strength. Where she went off the rails was with her in-yer-face appearance. The frazzly ponytail she wore in national competition, the overly-long painted fingernails, those were not the visual display the judges valued.

    When she french-braided her hair and scaled back on the makeup, her natural, fresh, elfin look was hers alone, and with an appropriate media kit and a willingness to keep her trap shut, she’d have had those endorsements that eluded her.

    Of course, twenty years later, watching current interviews with her, it’s clear she’s got ‘convenient memory’ about what transpired, those fingernails haven’t gone anywhere, the hair extensions are the 2014 answer to her former mall hair, and she’s so quick off the mark to snarl defensively, she’s STILL shooting herself in the foot. I’d love to be her media consultant for a day. . .


    • rinksidecafe
      Mar 05, 2014 @ 13:14:56

      Sure, Harding could’ve changed her looks but there’s an even bigger issue at play here. Just as in the Slate article points out, for male athletes, their success is the main selling point when they’re used in advertisements while their looks are second. For females, looks come first and their successes are less relevant. (I think the Slate article also gives an example between Serena Williams and Maria Sharpnova – who, we have to note, compete in a sport where their wins and losses don’t rely on their looks.)
      Regardless of what Tonya Harding did, I think the Slate article which inspired this piece points to a very problematic situation in society where there is a double standard for men and women – men just need to be successful while women need to be successful AND attractive (which seems to be more important) and for those who aren’t considered to be attractive, they need to work so much harder to make the same amount of money as their attractive counterparts. What makes me most sad about this is that 20 years after the incident and this problem still exists.


  2. Hazura Jane
    Mar 06, 2014 @ 10:47:19

    You’ve nailed it – and it’s not *just* that women need to achieve success AND be attractive, they must be attractive in line to a standard set by each industry. There is also the ‘lightning in a bottle’ star quality that you either have, or you don’t.

    At risk of gushing over your blog, I quite look forward to clicking the bookmark I placed on it – your writing is balanced, intelligent and well-researched. You blend video clips, hard cold facts, and photos in your content, and you keep it real, and often funny.

    Cheers, and I’m toasting you with the Upper Peninsula salute to our Northern neighbors – Habitat soup in a mug with a side of pasty. (-:


  3. Trackback: The Harding/Kerrigan Documentary | The Rinkside Cafe

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