Tonya Harding vs. Nancy Kerrigan: Inside Figure Skating’s Biggest Scandal
Tonya Harding vs. Nancy Kerrigan: The two skaters couldn’t have been more different, yet they were neck-and-neck as they competed for the coveted top spot in their sport. And the story couldn’t have been more perfect. It was nothing short of a ready-made media frenzy waiting in the wings. And just about every member of the American public — figure skating fanatic or otherwise — was ready for a juicy piece of what would soon become the scandal of the century.
But what do you really know about the feud that set the nation ablaze, disgraced one of the best figure skaters of the time, and left us all reeling in the aftermath? Here, we’re breaking it all down and giving you the inside scoop of the story behind the story.
Tonya Harding had a tortured past
According to the media, Harding was the girl from the wrong side of the tracks. According to Harding herself, she was the girl who’d been abused her entire life. In her eyes, she was the victim — the victim who rose to fame despite her childhood, that is.
A glimpse into Harding’s past paints an important picture of her younger years and home life. In an interview with The New York Times, Harding describes the abuse she suffered at the hands of her mother and her ex-husband, saying her face was once “put through a mirror” and that “her mother threw a knife at her.” Both Harding’s ex-husband and mother, however, denied these allegations.
It should also be noted that the author of the New York Times piece, which we’ll be referencing again, said Harding “contradicted herself endlessly.” So just keep that in mind.
Next: She might not have been exactly what the sport was hoping for.
Harding wasn’t the picture-perfect ice skater growing up
Harding was the outspoken, unapologetic, misunderstood (at least in her opinion) diamond in the rough of the figure skating world. “People said that her sin — before her other sins — was not being the Disney princess Barbie doll that the Figure Skating Association demanded of its skaters,” The New York Times wrote. Maybe that’s true, but it’s hardly an excuse.
Growing up, Harding made her own costumes, while others — such as her rival Kerrigan, who skated in outfits made by Vera Wang — wore expensive, professionally made garments that dazzled the judges. Did Harding lack a certain sense of class and sophistication? Perhaps. And for that, along with everything else for which she believes she’s been misunderstood, she wants the world to know just how poor and abused she was growing up — along with an apology.
Next: Her No. 1 rival had a very different upbringing.
Nancy Kerrigan seemingly had it all
If Harding was the girl from the wrong side of the tracks, then Kerrigan was the ice princess. She was everything the figure skating association hoped young skaters would be. And of course, she couldn’t have been more different than Harding.
Kerrigan came from a loving working-class family in Massachusetts. Her parents were supportive, and her appearance was polished and well-groomed. She had sponsorship deals with Campbell’s, Seiko, Revlon, and Reebok, when Harding had none. Why? According to PopSugar, “[Kerrigan’s] overall persona seemed to win over the public more, even if Harding arguably had a slight skating advantage.”
Next: Harding earned her own reputation — as a solid competitor.
Harding once had a promising career
The nature of the attack on Kerrigan was bizarre, no doubt about it. After all, who would want to ruin a promising young figure skater’s Olympic dreams? It’s not like Harding couldn’t earn a spot based on her talent alone. In fact, Harding had out-skated Kerrigan in the past.
During the 1991 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, Harding landed a triple axel jump, making her the first American woman to do so in competition. The routine earned her first place; Kerrigan took bronze.
Next: They have a storied past together.
The story behind the longtime rivals
The 1994 Olympics wouldn’t be the first time these longtime rivals competed at the games. Following Harding’s performance during which she famously landed that triple axel, she was the favorite going into the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France.
However, Kerrigan finished third, while Harding finished fourth. After that, their rivalry only grew. Kerrigan “became America’s Sweetheart after the 1992 games,” leaving Harding struggling to find her own way.
Next: And here’s where it all went from bad to worst.
The Whack Heard Round the World
On Jan. 6, 1994 — just one day before the qualifying competition and six weeks before the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway — Kerrigan was struck on her right knee (her landing leg) immediately following a practice session in Detroit. In what became known as The Whack Heard Round the World, it’s clear Kerrigan was in a great deal of pain. And though Kerrigan “was granted a spot on the Olympic team, she was unable to compete in the U.S. Championships, and Harding won as a result,” Marie Claire reported.
But the question remained: Who would do such a thing? Well, not long after the attack, the individuals responsible revealed themselves. Just before the 1994 Games, Harding’s ex-husband Jeff Gillooly, her bodyguard Shawn Eckhardt, and two others were found guilty for their roles in the attack.
Next: The media had a field day.
The scandal that sparked a media frenzy
We already know even well before the attack, both Harding and Kerrigan had been typecast by the media. But after the attack? Well, that became nothing short of a feeding frenzy. Despite the U.S. Olympic Committee’s effort to ban Harding from the 1994 Lillehammer Games, she ended up going thanks to her threat to sue.
In the end, both Harding and Kerrigan went on to compete in Norway, and tensions were sky high. “While it’s undeniable that Kerrigan was viciously attacked, outlets took liberty to portray the women as they saw fit: Harding was from the wrong side of the tracks, while Kerrigan was an elegant athlete who was born to win,” Refinery29 wrote. “Harding was scrappy and misunderstood, while Kerrigan was cold and stuck-up.”
Fast forward to their shared practice time once they got to Norway, and it was no holds barred as Kerrigan stepped onto the ice in the same, now very familiar, white dress she had worn when she was attacked in Detroit. (If you’ve ever wanted to know what the proverbial middle finger is, it’s that.)
Next: The Olympics wouldn’t be drama-free.
Drama at the 1994 Olympics
At the 1994 Lillehammer Games, Kerrigan earned herself a silver medal, despite her knee injury just six weeks prior. Harding, on the other hand? Well, she gave a less-than-stellar performance. In fact, she broke down in front of the judges, claiming that her poor routine was a result of a broken lace. She finished eighth.
The 1994 Olympics would be the last time both Harding and Kerrigan would skate competitively ever again.
Next: Harding’s consequences
Harding was banned from the only thing she ever knew
After the 1994 Games, Harding pleaded guilty to conspiring to hinder prosecution, meaning she knew about the attack after it happened but failed to tell the FBI.
According to The New York Times, “She was sentenced to three years of supervised probation, 500 hours of community service, a $100,000 state fine, and was tasked with setting up a $50,000 fund to benefit the Special Olympics, reimbursing the Multnomah County prosecutor’s office $10,000 in costs, undergoing a psychiatric examination and participating in any court-ordered treatment.” Harding was also barred from the U.S. Figure Skating Association for life.
Next: But still, what’s the real story?
But is Harding really innocent?
Harding has long denied her involvement in the attack on her former rival. That said, here’s a little tidbit of information you might not have known: The FBI found a piece of paper in the dumpster that contained Kerrigan’s practice location and schedule. Experts matched the handwriting to that of Harding’s. Harding said that the information was intended “to help her co-conspirators locate where to send threatening letters,” The New York Times said.
And then, in possibly the most mic-drop quip ever written, the publication wrote, “Ms. Harding has maintained that she did not help plan the physical attack on Ms. Kerrigan: no word on why you’d need practice times in order to send letters.”
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