By Joshua Morrison
Blog Content Contributor
Recently, it was announced that the Tonya Harding story is set to become a film. This news has been a long time coming. When it comes to media scandals, there is the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan saga and there is everything else. The details are so surreal, so outrageous that it’s hard to believe a cinematic treatment took so long to come about. It tops anything a screenwriter might come up with; you can’t make this stuff up.
For the uninitiated, the story goes as follows:
Tonya Harding was a backwoods, poverty-stricken figure skater with a lust for the gold and recognition that the classist world of skating denied her. Harding was, at times, a great figure skater who set records. She was also unrelentingly herself, even when that meant spitting in the face of all of the expectations placed upon figure skaters. Her routines were set to Tone Lōc and music from “Batman” and she eschewed grace in favor of straightforward athleticism. She didn’t care for elegance, she wanted to skate faster, jump higher. She knew how to work on cars, chop firewood. In short, she was a bit rough around the edges. Harding’s image rendered her unable to land high-profile endorsements and make the sort of living that her more elegant contemporaries, like Nancy Kerrigan, enjoyed.
Kerrigan embodied the grace and elegance expected of a successful figure skater. She looked rich and was thus able to fit into the classist structures that dominate the competitive figure-skating world despite coming from the working-class. Endorsement deals were easy for Kerrigan to land. The skating community embraced her. She was wearing costumes designed for her by Vera Wang. She had everything Harding wanted.
Not long before the 1994 Winter Olympics, Kerrigan was the victim of a vicious attack after a practice session. Somebody had attempted to break her knee using a metal baton. Cameras caught her in the aftermath, as she grabbed her knee and screamed one soon to be iconic question: why?
In the weeks following the attack, it became clear that Harding was uncomfortably close to the situation.
Harding’s husband at the time, the abusive Jeff Gillooly, was definitely involved. He orchestrated the attack with Harding’s bodyguard Shawn Eckhardt, who, before his death, claimed to be a counter-terrorism specialist. The duo was sloppy and eventually the plot was discovered. The official version of the story is that Harding found out that Gillooly and Eckhardt had planned the attack after the fact and failed to report them. There are plenty of people, however, who believe that she had a bit more to do with it than she’s ever admitted.
The attack was not as damaging as it was intended to be and Kerrigan ended up recovering in time to skate at the Olympics. She won the silver medal and went on to earn millions in endorsements. Harding finished in 8th place and was subsequently banned from skating for life after pleading guilty to obstruction of justice.
Clearly, this story is a sensationalist’s dream. There is a level of implausibility at work in this tale that simply demands that it be told. Beyond the story’s formidable intrigue, however, lies an important opportunity for this tale to start conversations about class and femininity and how they operate in athletic spheres.
While Harding is no doubt culpable in some way for the situation, she is also a tragic figure. Her background and interests equipped her with something different than what we associate with figure skaters. The world was not ready to see a figure skater who flouted what is perceived of as good taste. There was, and still is, an expectation that figure skaters be embodiments of a particular kind of hyper-femininity. Harding was shunned for her inability to fit that mold and that culture of exclusion set the backdrop for the events that unfolded.
The great irony of the situation is that figure skaters are athletes. A figure skater cannot succeed without pushing their body and working incredibly hard. The emphasis on grace works to conceal this truth. Harding, intentionally or not, pushed against that mechanism. The mechanism pushed back.
Harding might not be innocent, but it is impossible to deny that she is also a victim. Stories about people like her are the most rewarding, and often the hardest to tell. Her story is both juicy and important. It holds the potential to both thrill and get people talking in a way that might disrupt the status quo.
Let’s hope Hollywood gets it right.