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After 20 Years, Tonya Harding Still Tarnishes Olympic Memories

Former dance partners Nancy Kerrigan (right) and Tonya Harding. (Phil Sandlin/AP)
Former dance partners Nancy Kerrigan (right) and Tonya Harding. (Phil Sandlin/AP)
This article is more than 5 years old.

Twenty years ago this week Nancy Kerrigan was viciously clubbed while leaving the ice at the U.S. National Figure Skating Championships, an attack that shocked and eventually titillated the nation. Because her chief rival, Tonya Harding, became a suspect in the conspiracy, figure skating was front page news right through the Lillehammer Olympics.

I was in the middle of it. I was drowning in the slime. It became my so-called life. Whyyyy? I kept asking, parroting the injured Kerrigan.

Why me? Because I probably knew Harding better than any member of the national media. I had done an in-depth profile on the first American woman to land a triple axel two years earlier, which was about the only substantive piece ever done on the troubled skater.

As a result, I was one of the experts to whom the late-night talk show pundits turned. Nightline. (Ted Koppel!) Crossfire. (Pat Buchanan!) Evening news shows; morning news shows… on and on… because the public couldn’t get enough out of the sporting soap opera that was unfolding. Tonya and Nancy became a national addiction.

The attack happened in Detroit. I was there, covering the USFSA Championships (they’re in Boston this week), which essentially doubled as the Olympic qualifier. As soon as the attack on Kerrigan was reported, those of us who covered the sport on a regular basis came to the same conclusion: Harding had to be involved. She was the only one who stood to gain from Kerrigan’s injury. She had no real friends in the sport. And she was hard as the ice on which she skated. No pixie, she. Tonya had her own pool cue and drag-raced in the summer for kicks. When her half-brother allegedly tried to sexually molest her, she burned him with a hot curling iron. Tonya wasn’t on speaking terms with her mother, who didn’t believe the sexually molesting part. She could bench press more than her weight, and replace the brakes on her car, solo.

I probably knew Harding better than any member of the national media ... As a result, I was one of the experts to whom the late-night talk show pundits turned.

She was gritty and had a massive chip on her shoulder. And she wasn’t skating well. Harding hadn’t landed her triple axel all year (nor would she). Plus I knew something else. The girl could lie. When I was researching the profile on her in the fall of 1992, Tonya was separated from her husband, Jeff Gillooly. She was seriously dating a young banker from Vancouver. She told friends she was in love with him. Sports Illustrated photographer Heinz Kleutmeier, who was shooting the story, had any number of pictures of the two of them together, in various stages of caress. But when a fact-checker called to verify what I’d written, Harding lied. Said I made up the romance. She’d gotten back together with Gillooly, and wasn’t about to let this Vancouver banker fling mess things up. She claimed she never dated the guy.  Barely knew him, never mind been in love with him. I’d totally misinterpreted.

“Tonya, we have pictures,” I said. “Arm in arm with him. Holding hands with him. Kissing him. Lots of pictures.”

Pause. Long pause. “You can’t use them.”

We didn’t, though we certainly could have. But the banker stayed in the story. So — fast forward — when Harding denied a role in the attack on Kerrigan, I didn’t believe her for a second. She was, by nature, one of Fagin’s little street thugs, capable of rationalizing just about any untoward action. She believed the figure skating establishment was against her; that Kerrigan was the Anointed One; that the deck was unfairly stacked. Hence, disabling Kerrigan was justified. No remorse.

Eventually, the FBI untangled the conspiracy, and I read their exhaustive debriefing of Gillooly. And, separately, Harding. (10 hours worth of debriefing.) He spilled his guts, thoroughly implicating Harding, whom he said had been in on it from the beginning. She denied that, was vague, and was caught in a number of lies. There was no question in my mind (or the FBI’s) which of the two of them was telling the truth. But she lawyered up, threatened the USOC with a $25 million lawsuit if it removed her from the team, and was allowed to represent the U.S.A. in the Olympics. Twenty years later that still sticks in my craw.

Kerrigan, right, and Harding, left, join other members of the team at practice, Monday, Feb. 21, 1994, Hamar, Norway. (Doug Mills/AP)
Kerrigan, right, and Harding, left, join other members of the team at practice, Monday, Feb. 21, 1994, Hamar, Norway. (Doug Mills/AP)

She didn’t have to be a convicted felon for the U.S. Olympic Committee to kick her off the team. There is a code of conduct expected of an Olympian that she had thoroughly violated. Her USFSA training money, for example, had been used to pay for the attack on Kerrigan. Harding admitted to driving Gillooly to his first meeting with his co-conspirators. She admitted knowing Gillooly and one of his cohorts were involved in the attack after it occurred, but she didn’t turn them in to authorities. She had demonstrably lied to the FBI. And her husband had implicated her.

As soon as the attack on Kerrigan was reported, those of us who covered the sport on a regular basis came to the same conclusion: Harding had to be involved.

But the USOC caved, pathetically, and the circus continued right into Lillehammer, where, thankfully, Harding imploded on the ice in an act of Karmic justice. After finishing 8th, she returned home and eventually pleaded guilty to conspiring to hinder prosecution of the attackers. She never served jail time — the other conspirators did — but she was kicked out of the USFSA.

Kerrigan, in my mind, was never given proper credit for the courage she showed recovering from the attack and, with the world’s eyes on her, skating virtually flawlessly in Lillehammer. A native of Woburn, Mass., she won Silver, and four of the nine judges placed her first. Later, she made an ill-advised comment about gold-medalist Oksana Bauil crying her make-up off, and another about the corniness of being in a Disney World parade, and the media latched onto these as if she, too, had launched an attack. Tonya and Nancy. Nancy and Tonya. Forever entwined.

It’s a sad thing when the victim and the perpetrator become permanently linked by history. Nancy Kerrigan deserves better. Because 20 years later, I still cannot think of a more despicable Olympian than Tonya Harding.


Related:

E. M. Swift Cognoscenti contributor
E.M. Swift wrote for Sports Illustrated between 1978 and 2010, covering a wide range of sports but specializing in the Olympics. He is now a freelance writer living in Carlisle, Mass.

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