The Tonya Harding incident: 24 years later

Chloe McCarthy ’18, Feature/Opinion Editor

As the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games approach, we are reminded of the good, the bad, and the ugly of the Olympics past. The Olympic Games are no stranger to scandal, as nearly every year a story breaks that may make us hesitant to root for Team USA. But as far as the truly ugly category goes, perhaps the most notorious event to occur in the history of women’s figure skating is the showdown between Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan.

The incident was recently thrown back into the public eye with the December 2017 release of I, Tonya, a major motion picture starring Margot Robbie and Allison Janney. Harding herself appeared at the 2017 Golden Globe Awards, smiling ear-to-ear with her moviestar counterparts. Clearly something big went down for the public to still show such great interest in the Tonya Harding story– so what happened?

Tonya Harding, born Nov. 12, 1970, grew up in a blue-collar family in Portland, Oregon. Throughout her childhood, her mother LaVona Fay Golden was emotionally and physically abusive, and she was extremely tough on Harding when it came to her skating career. Matters become even worse when Harding fell in love with Jeff Gillooly at 16. Not only did he emotionally and physically abuse her, he also played a very influential role in her demise.

Although Harding was a gifted figure skater (being the first woman to complete the triple axel,) her rough-and-tumble, tomboy aura did not mix well with the graceful, wholesome image the United States Figure Skating Association  (USFSA) wanted to project for their sport. Because of this, Harding was infamous for lashing out at the judges for not scoring her as high as she thought she deserved. Kerrigan, another talented skater of the time, was exactly the girl the USFSA was looking for, and she quickly became a favorite among the judges, as well as the face of skating for the American public.

Here’s where the story starts going downhill, and the details become a bit hazy.

Harding’s husband at the time, Gillooly, devised a plan with the help of Harding’s bodyguard Shawn Eckhardt to break Kerrigan’s knees to eliminate her from competing in the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics. Gillooly and Eckhardt hired a hitman who, on Jan. 6, 1994, bashed Kerrigan’s knee three times with a metal baton. Luckily, she had a speedy recovery, and her knee was only bruised.

Of course, the ultimate question at hand was ‘Did Harding know about the attack, or did Gillooly and Eckhardt go rogue in an attempt to help Harding place higher at the Olympics?’ The world may never know. Under the USFSA investigation, Harding plead guilty to conspiring to hinder the prosecution. though she denied planning the attack or knowing about the attack. She received three years’ probation, 500 hours of community service, a $160,000 fine, and was banned for life from skating or coaching. Both Gillooly and Eckhardt spent over 18 months in prison, Gillooly with an additional $100,000 fine.

After all was said and done, Harding lost all of her sponsors, and was essentially exiled, not just from the USFSA, but from the public eye. She embarked on a short-lived boxing career, which was an obviously-desperate scrape for some money. Worse yet, at her absolute lowest, Gillooly leaked a celebrity sex tape of the two. Harding’s fall from the top was one of the most painful plunges in all of sports.

Twenty-four years later, things are looking somewhat better for Harding. She is now married to Joseph Jens Price and the pair has a five-year-old son. For obvious reasons, Harding prefers to go by the name Tonya Price.

As the film I, Tonya alludes to, American society wants someone to love, but most of all, it wants someone to hate. While Harding messed up (granted the extent she was directly involved in the attack remains unclear to this day), it is incredibly difficult not to sympathize with Harding just a little after learning more about her background with both an abusive mother and husband. Although these factors do not excuse her actions, there is more to Tonya Harding than just a ‘jealous bully who wanted to take out the ice princess.’

If one thing is for sure, the Tonya Harding fiasco caused the general public’s interest in women’s figure skating to skyrocket, whether or not the USFSA would admit that. The story made great sensationalized tabloid entertainment, and was one of the news stories of the 90s. While the Tonya Harding story certainly does not have a happy ending for the individuals involved, at least the story has met some sort of conclusion. The story was a perfect maelstrom  of the underdog-gone-wrong, the innocent sweetheart, and the grotesque crimes fame and glory can push us to commit.

Photo courtesy of Rolling Stone


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