Think you’re “woke” for supporting Harding in 2018? Think again.
In the wake of the critically acclaimed blockbuster I, Tonya, disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding is enjoying a tale of redemption. Recently being celebrated at a screening of the film in Austin, TX, Harding has spoken publicly about how overwhelmed she’s been at the support she’s received since the film’s release. While Harding is now enjoying life as a mother and wife, living just miles from abusive ex Jeff Gillooly, the public display of support for the Olympic athlete is arriving over two decades too late. It’s becoming en vogue to believe Harding’s account of the events these days, but if someone supports Harding only after 2017’s theatrical release, well, they’re anything but “woke.”
Let’s take a moment to remember the facts regarding the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan scandal. Kerrigan, ice darling and favorite for the U.S. Olympic Team, was attacked by a male with a baton two days prior to Olympic trials on January 6th, 1994. Diagnosed with a bone bruise, Kerrigan elected to sit out of competition. Because selection for the U.S. Olympic team was not dependent solely on performance at the U.S. Olympic trials, Kerrigan was selected for the team anyway, a spot she certainly deserved. Also on the team, Tonya Harding, arguably the most athletic U.S. women’s figure skater of all time, but certainly the most athletic skater to that point in 1994, so what would Harding’s motive have been to orchestrate an attack on Kerrigan anyway?
Well, a blue collar Oregonian, Harding did not fit the image of what U.S. Figure Skating wanted to promote, to paraphrase an official’s comments to Harding. Harding, coming from a broken home, escaping an abusive mother to be trapped in an intensely abusive marriage, was not an ice princess like Kerrigan. In fact, Harding chose to stay with her abusive husband in part because U.S. Figure Skating would not have approved of a divorced skater being the face of their organization. With a sport where judging, especially at the time, was so subjective, Harding felt obliged to comply with these external barriers to her successful skating career, though she would continue to have her scores marked down because of her use of hand-made competition outfits that garnered disapproval from the judges. Still, the first American woman to land a triple axel in competition, a feat not repeated until the 2018 Olympics by Mirai Nagasu (or Tonya 2.0, more on that later), Harding was more than deserving of her spot on the Olympic team. Worried that she wouldn’t secure her spot, Gillooly and his best friend and self-proclaimed body guard to Harding, Shawn Eckhardt orchestrated the infamous attack on Kerrigan.
Summarily, what followed was a hefty fine, probation, and court-ordered community service for Harding, her punishment more severe than either Gillooly or Eckhardt’s. The most significant piece of the punishment, however, was Harding being banned from the United States Figure Skating Association, meaning both as a skater or a coach. Harding, having left school before the age of 16 to dedicate her life to her skating now had no ability to be near the sport in any meaningful way, and certainly could not profit or make a living through skating, even after being the best in the world if for a brief movement. The court of public opinion sentenced Harding to a life of hardship and financial struggle.
In this redemption story, Harding was cast on ABC’s Dancing With The Stars’ season dedicated to athletes. This season was unjustly short at six weeks, not giving Harding enough time to really develop and show her personality. Despite this, she made it to the finals to be beaten by 2018 Olympian Adam Rippon, who won the judges over with personality as opposed to dancing ability, but the biggest travesty was the producers of the show never made mention of the fact that the only two American women to ever successfully land a triple axel in competition were competing on the same season of the show, let alone ever having the two women dance head to head. Tonya v. Tonya 2.0 wrote itself, and the producers were denied.
While I am vindicated that Harding finally is getting her due, I maintain that this is far too little too late. This should have happened in 1994, but the biggest travesty is the dismal shape of American figure skating in the post-Harding era. Perhaps, had Tonya been allowed to coach, our last Olympic gold medal in ladies’ singles skating would be more recent than 2002, and our last podium finish certainly would be more recent than 2006.
By: Dan Burkett