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My chronicling of the very strange story of Tonya Harding

scottteaser-215x160Tonya Harding’s skating session in Detroit’s Cobo Arena had just ended, and as she walked briskly down the hallway toward the locker room, I introduced myself and said I’d like to interview her for a column I was writing for Gannett News Service. She eyed me warily and kept moving at a rapid pace. She seemed out of sorts, rushing along as if she were double-parked outside the arena and about to be towed.

Before flying to MoTown that weekend, I had pored over newspaper clips mailed to me by U.S. Figure Skating, and Harding’s story caught my eye because she didn’t fit the stereotype I had formed about skaters. My research (which was much harder to do in those pre-Google days of 1994) revealed a young woman from the wrong side of the tracks who shot pool, tore apart automobile engines, and took guff from no one. She was fearless on the ice, too, becoming the first female skater to execute a triple axel jump in competition. This was my kind of off-the-beaten-path, human-interest story.

Sensing the meter was running on my interview, I hurriedly began asking Harding questions, but she cut me off. She told me she didn’t have time for any bleeping interview and high-tailed it into the locker room, which was off-limits to reporters covering that year’s national figure skating championships.

Angered by the blow-off, I scrambled to find another column topic. About 90 minutes later that problem was solved when news broke that Nancy Kerrigan – Harding’s chief rival for Olympic gold that February in Norway – had been assaulted in the same hallway we had just trod. Kerrigan had been clubbed in the knee and the video of the crumpled skater crying out “Why? Why? Why me?!” was soon broadcast nationwide. Months earlier, a deranged fan had stabbed Monica Seles during a tennis match, so the feeling in Detroit was that this was a copycat crime.

It wasn’t until the following week that the FBI revealed that Harding’s ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, and his friend, Shawn Eckardt, had planned the attack. Though implicated by Gillooly, Harding was not initially charged and was allowed to compete in the Winter Games a month later. Because of the circumstances, the U.S.O.C. granted Kerrigan a special exemption to compete, too.

For the next month I would have a front-row seat to the most bizarre sports story of the 20th century, perhaps of all-time.

Enquiring minds couldn’t get enough of Tonya’s tawdry tale. It became the most followed story on the planet and resulted in some of the highest television ratings ever. If there had been a fully-functioning Internet back then, this story would have given new meaning to the term, “gone viral.” The scandal actually did wonders for the popularity of figure skating as non-traditional viewers tuned in and began appreciating the sport’s artistry and difficulty.

Nearly a quarter-century later, the story continues to be rehashed. Its latest interpretation is the recently released “I, Tonya”—a black comedy biopic that’s receiving Oscar buzz. Director Craig Gillespie and writer Steven Rogers present the film in mockumentary style, with the characters interviewed as if this were a documentary.

It is a deeply disturbing movie, at times tough to watch—and at times impossible not to watch. Although Harding is portrayed occasionally as difficult and obnoxious, it is her mother, LaVona “Sandy” Golden, and Gillooly, who come off as the true villains. Golden, played with mesmerizing cruelty by actress Allison Janney, is shown beating up her daughter physically and psychologically. At one point, she flings a kitchen knife into Harding’s arm. The mother sees nothing wrong with her actions. She rationalizes that she is merely motivating Harding to become tough enough and hungry enough to become a world champion. This pattern of abuse continues in Harding’s marriage to Gillooly, who one-ups his mother-in-law by smashing Tonya’s head into a wall.

At one point in the film, Harding, played marvelously by Australian actress Margot Robbie, turns to the camera and admonishes the rubber-necking audience: “You’re all my attackers, too.” It is a powerful and uncomfortable moment.

It’s important to note that this is an “artistic” not a “journalistic” interpretation, and it’s told in a way to make us feel as if Harding is as much of a victim as Kerrigan. That’s a stretch, given Harding’s history as a conniver and the fact she had some prior knowledge of the attack. Her mother has vehemently denied her portrayal. And this narrative that snobby U.S. Figure Skating officials and judges conspired against Harding just isn’t true. If that were the case, why would they have sent her to the Olympics twice, a rare feat for a skater?

Harding’s agent—a driving force behind the film’s production—recently quit because he wasn’t comfortable with her request requiring journalists to sign pre-interview affidavits saying they wouldn’t ask her “about the past.” Upon hearing Harding’s ridiculous demands, which reportedly included $25,000 fines for violating the affidavit, one veteran Olympic writer reminded people that “Tonya has a long history of biting the hand that feeds her.”

Hollywood has the right to tell stories any way it desires. Even if it means not letting the facts get in the way of a good story. Just because the plot is compelling and the acting, at times, Academy Award-worthy, doesn’t mean the story is true.

Covering the Olympics had been a career goal since I got into journalism, and the 1994 Winter Games in Norway would be my first of five such assignments. My debut Olympiad clearly left an indelible impression because it was smothered by this bombshell story.

On Feb. 17, 1994, 500 of my closest friends and I shoe-horned our way into a training rink with a capacity of about 200 so we could observe the first U.S. skating practice of the Olympics. Most of us had arrived four hours early in order to secure a spot. Some reporters played cards. Some read books. Some tried to nap. Some even interviewed one another.

“We’re all tabloid journalists now,” New York Times sports columnist George Vecsey said, smiling. “Ain’t that the truth,’’ I replied, nodding. As it turned out, there was nothing to report from that day’s practice. Harding and Kerrigan skated for nearly 45 minutes without incident. They rarely made eye contact, barely acknowledged each other’s existence.

The women’s short program six nights later attracted the kind of television ratings reserved for Super Bowls and the final episodes of long-running sitcoms. Harding bombed, even after being granted a re-skate following a dubious claim that her laces had snapped. Kerrigan skated flawlessly. Two nights later, during the more demanding long competition, Harding could not rebound and finished eighth. Kerrigan performed impeccably, but was nipped for the gold medal by Oksana Baiul, the teenaged orphan from Russia, who captivated the audience and the judges.

It’s strange how things turn out. When Gannett News Service editor Jerry Langdon called nearly a quarter-century ago to say he was sending me to Detroit to cover the figure skating championships in preparation for my first Olympics, I felt as if I would be skating on thin ice. I told him I’d be a klutz trying to describe a lutz. “You’ll be fine,’’ he reassured me. “You’ll find plenty to write about.”

Man was he ever right. I found plenty to write about, all right. More, in fact, than I ever could have imagined. And it’s a story I’m still writing about all these years later.

Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.

2 comments

  1. Great job Scott. My wife Judy, is a big figure skating fan. She clearly remembers the incident and all the follow-up mystery. She feels that this incident put figure skating on “the map.”

  2. Thanks, Frank. Judy is right. It dramatically increased figure skating’s popularity.

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