“Folks said there’s no way Obama has a chance unless he goes and kneecaps the person ahead of us, does a Tonya Harding” – Barack Obama during a speech in Vinton, Iowa, 2007
Tonya Harding did not have a lucky lot in life. Abuse is an understatement for the amount of pain, both physical and mental, that she endured as a child. Her mother was only concerned with the performance of her young figure skater, valuing success over love. Among other things, Harding faced beatings from her mother, sexual abuse from her brother, and was even forced to relieve herself on the ice due to her mother’s anger that she was paying for lessons, not bathroom breaks. This torment followed her into marriage with Jeff Gillooly, who she met at the age of 15. Needless to say, Harding sought out refuge.
She found this escape on an ice rink. Harding showed her skating prowess at national championships, placing higher each year until winning Skate America in 1989. In 1991, she became the first American woman to land a triple axel in an international competition- considered the hardest of six jumps in figure skating. Gaining skill and popularity, Harding climbed through international championships and finally to the Olympic team.
The media, as it typically does, wanted a golden girl. Nancy Kerrigan, Harding’s main competitor within Team USA, became that girl. Kerrigan grew up in a working class home with loving parents and Vera Wang skate costumes. This was a far leap from the media-unfriendly vision of Harding’s vicious mother and handmade, sequined skate outfits. Along with casting Harding as the poised Kerrigan’s rough-and-tumble contrast, they crafted a rivalry between the two.
This sets the stage for the 1994 U.S. Figure Skating Championships. Both girls were invited, and after a practice session on a Detroit rink, a hitman hired by Jeff Gillooly attacked Nancy Kerrigan and struck her an inch above the knee with a police baton. While only suffering a deep bone bruise, this still rendered her unable to compete in the U.S. Figure Skating Championships and set her training back for the 1994 Winter Olympics. Dubbed “The Whack Heard Round The World,” video footage of a crippled Kerrigan screaming, “Why? Why me?” in the moments after the attack became the soundtrack to a nation looking for someone to blame. Though Harding had no involvement, she became the image of a disgraced idol. The world pegged her as a conspirator who knew about the attack beforehand.
Shortly thereafter, The US Figure Skating Association instilled their own punishment: Harding was stripped of her 1994 US Championship title and barred from participating in any USFSA event as a player or coach. So- not only was she shamed and ostracized from the skating community, but the USFSA effectively took away the one positive relationship Harding had- the one between her and the ice.
Of no fault of her own, Tonya Harding became the centerpiece of one of the greatest Olympic scandals. Of no fault of her own, Tonya Harding fell from the pedestal she built to escape a life of abuse. Of no fault of her own, Tonya Harding had to scrape by doing odd jobs because she could no longer do the one profession she’s done her whole life. It is the nation’s fault for dropping blame of a criminal act on a young girl.
What can we do to right this wrong? Nothing really, at this point. There is not much that can reverse the pain Harding has felt for the past 24-odd years. However, by opening up Harding’s point of view, like it was recently done in the 2017 movie about the scandal, “I, Tonya,” we can begin to repair the mistakes we made. The film focuses on Harding’s perspective during the incident, and dispels rumors and lies that surround the situation. Conversation that is factual and informed will change the storyline of this event from a drama-dipped scandal to an act of violence that swept up someone who was not guilty. What we need to do right now is apologize for taking away the best years of a young woman’s life.