The Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan Scandal Is Still Completely Unsettling, Even 2 Decades Later
Jan. 6, 1994, continues to be known as the day one of the biggest sports scandals in American history took place. Olympians Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan were preparing for their second Games together when Kerrigan was attacked — but was Harding involved? She holds onto her innocence to this day. Multiple documentaries have been made on the incident, and Margot Robbie stars in Hollywood's big-budget film I, Tonya, which earned a trio of Oscar nominations. The scandal occurred over 20 years ago, yet the movie offers a new reason to revisit the case. In a time when some women choose to tear each other down for the sake of their own careers and relationships, the movie will surely open a fresh perspective.
Harding was the first American woman to land a triple axel (the name just sounds difficult in itself) in the 1991 US Figure Skating Championships. She ended up getting a perfect score and won first place. Kerrigan received bronze. The two had competed against one another in the 1992 Olympics in Albertville, France, where Kerrigan took home bronze and Harding followed in fourth. Their relationship extended beyond healthy competition. Sure, they were both gunning for the top spot, but it seemed to stretch beyond that.
Both ladies were making big names for themselves, but Kerrigan had more sponsorships: Campbell's, Seiko, Revlon, and Reebok. Her overall persona seemed to win over the public more, even if Harding arguably had a slight skating advantage.
Harding and Kerrigan were practicing for the US Women's Championships in Detroit, MI, on that January day. The championship was set for the following day and would decide who qualified to move onto the 1994 Winter Olympic Games in Lillehammer, Norway. That night, before the qualifying skate, Kerrigan was walking off the ice after practicing when she was struck in the right knee with a baton. The assaulter was a man hired by Harding's ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly.
The moments before and after the attack were caught on tape. We see Kerrigan on the ground crying and screaming, "Why?!" In between shrieks and sobs, she described the object she was struck with as "some hard, hard black stick." Kerrigan was hit on her right kneecap, which was her landing leg on the ice.
The doctor who examined Kerrigan after the attack, Dr. Steven Plomaritis, told The New York Times, "He [the attacker] was clearly trying to debilitate her." Luckily, there was no fracture, but she did suffer from a bruise, limp, and severe swelling. Would Kerrigan be able to skate her two-and-a-half-minute routine? After all, the qualifying round was the very next day. Plomaritis told the Times that it wouldn't hurt for her to skate, on a medical level. But could she stand the pain? Harding went on to skate into first place that next day.
Before the Games even started, the man who struck Kerrigan, Gillooly, and two other men associated with the attack were sentenced to prison. However, they made it known that Harding knew about the attack beforehand. But even today, she stands by the fact that she did not know about it or have involvement in it.
The US Olympic Committee wanted to disqualify Harding from competing. But when she came back with a $25 million lawsuit, they allowed her to go for the title. If you're on Kerrigan's side, maybe it's a good thing Harding was allowed to compete. Kerrigan skated in her bright yellow Vera Wang outfit with grace and took home the silver medal. Harding, on the other hand, almost didn't skate at all since one her laces broke before her turn. She started to cry and the judges allowed her to skate a little later on. Harding took eighth place.
Harding's career was as good as over, and she still says that she didn't know about the attack prior to it happening. However, she did admit in court that she found out shortly after it was carried out. In March 1994, Harding pleaded guilty to hindering the investigation. She was sentenced to probation, community service, and a fine. About six months after the attack, the US Figure Skating Association decided to strip Harding of her 1994 national championship. In addition, she couldn't skate in any event sponsored by the US Figure Skating Championships in any capacity. Now, it was really over.
"By a preponderance of the evidence, the five members of the panel concluded that she had prior knowledge and was involved prior to the incident," William Hybl, the hearing panel chairman, said in a telephone interview to The Washington Post. "This is based on civil standards, not criminal standards."
Kerrigan retired from active competition. However, she continued to show her moves in a variety of ice skating shows. In 2006, she was on Fox's Skating With Celebrities, and she even was in Blades of Glory with Will Ferrell. She also competed on Dancing With the Stars during its 24th season.
Will we ever truly know Harding's involvement or lack thereof in Kerrigan's attack? Probably not. Not for certain, anyway. But we're looking forward to seeing how the two women are depicted in I, Tonya later this year!