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