In New 30 For 30 Film, ESPN To Explore The Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan Rivalry And Its Tragic Results


Credit: Boston Herald

Credit: Boston Herald

Most people who love sports can think of a moment when their passion for athletics clicked: maybe it was a terrific pitching duel they witnessed with family, or the first time they threw a perfect spiral pass, the Braves’ loss in the 1991 world series, or the swell of nationalism around boxing during the 1988 Olympics. For me, my attachment to sports dates to an unmemorable Red Sox game in April of 1995, after my family had moved to Massachusetts. And, I suspect, like many other women, I was drawn in by an uglier event: the January 6, 1994 attack on figure skater Nancy Kerrigan by Jeff Gillooly, the ex-husband of Harding’s rival skater Tonya Harding, and Shawn Eckhardt, Harding’s bodyguard.

Now, as Travis Waldron pointed out yesterday in a sharp post on the underrepresentation of women as subjects and creators in ESPN’s acclaimed 30 For 30 series of films. It might be easy to dismiss the Harding-Kerrigan rivalry as a catfight, or the attack on Kerrigan as a bit of dirty business rather than a revealing window into the sport. But I’m thrilled that the story’s finally getting the spotlight. And I hope that the folks who tuned in to stories like Jordan Rides The Bus, about Michael Jordan’s stint in minor league baseball after his father’s death, or Unguarded, about Chris Herren’s drug use, will be up for giving Tonya and Nancy a chance, and that the resulting project will be brave enough to handle the significant issues of class and domestic violence involved in the case.

Kerrigan and Harding have more in common than is commonly acknowledged. Both were both from relatively modest backgrounds: Harding’s mother had been married five times when she was born, and her father was often unable to work, while Kerrigan’s father was a welder who maintained the local ice rink. They were both strong jumpers but not particularly distinguished at compulsory figures. Most of us think of figure skating as a sport dominated by challenging jumps today, but that wasn’t always the case–the sport’s title is actually derived from patterns skaters were required to trace into the ice, and which were weighted into skaters’ scores until 1990, when they were removed from the calculus in international competition.

But their lives diverged. Kerrigan graduated from high school in 1987, taking a special schedule of courses so she’d have plenty of time to train for her skating career. Harding dropped out of high school as a sophomore, and eventually earned a GED. She married Gillooly at 19, and after their divorce, he sold a sex tape, ostensibly of their wedding night, to Penthouse. It’s easy to dismiss celebrity sex tapes as a common occurrence now, but Harding was one of the first women to have her intimate life exposed that way. As both rose in international skating competition, perhaps unsurprisingly, it was Kerrigan who got a slew of endorsement deals, while Harding developed a reputation for being erratic, her performances plagued by lateness, broken skate laces, and even once a potentially rupturing ovarian cyst.

When Gillooly and Eckhardt attacked Kerrigan, hoping to break her leg so she wouldn’t be able to compete at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, it was an intrusion of thuggish violence on a sport that’s generally considered genteel and delicate. “You are a prime example of how ruthless ambition and raw greed can disrupt, degrade and disfigure a sport of grace even to the height of the Olympics,” Judge Donald Londer told Gillooly when he sentenced the other man to prison. He was right about the greed factor: if Kerrigan had fallen out of favor, while Harding did well, maybe some endorsement money might have migrated in Harding’s direction, though it’s hard to imagine that the attack wouldn’t have tarnished Harding irreparably even if she had emerged victorious. It may also have been about domestic violence: Harding, who pleaded guilty to a conspiracy to hinder prosecution, later said that Gillooly raped her and threatened her to keep her quite, allegations he denies. Both Harding and Gillooly would be arrested on domestic violence charges with other partners later in their lives.

In the end, nobody’s plans came to fruition. The Ukranian skater Oksana Baiul won the Ladies’ singles figure skating competition, while Kerrigan finished second, and Harding came in eighth. Kerrigan tarnished her own reputation with an on-air complaint about a delay in the medal ceremony after she was told Baiul was reapplying her makeup (in reality, no one could find a copy of the Ukranian National Anthem, saying “Oh, come on. So she’s going to get out here and cry again. What’s the difference?” By the standards of today’s mores, it’s a relatively tame remark, but it further contributed to the sense that Kerrigan and other figure skaters were not, in the parlance of a searing book about figure skating and gymnastics, little girls in pretty boxes.

And today both women are far removed from their skating careers. It’ll be fascinating if ESPN can get both Kerrigan and Harding on camera, and to see if the film’s really willing to get into the larger issues around the economic incentives of endorsements in sports like skating where those contracts can be a winner-take-all prospect, the economic sacrifices involved in getting a skating career off the ground, and the need to capitalize such a career with a relatively short window. The Harding-Kerrigan story is a terrific window into all of those issues, as well as into class markerslike Kerrigan’s Vera Wang competition costumes, and the expectations that skaters fit very specific definition of feminine behavior that includes neither attacking your rival nor badmouthing your competition. And in the years since, the competitors have only gotten younger, and the economic stakes have only gotten higher.