Monday, January 6, 2014

The Hole-in-the-Head Gang

"Why me? Why me?"

Nancy Kerrigan
Jan. 6, 1994

On this day 20 years ago, ice skater Nancy Kerrigan was clubbed on her right knee on the eve of the 1994 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Detroit.

It was part of a plot to keep Kerrigan from competing in the 1994 Winter Olympics, ostensibly opening the door for rival Tonya Harding to win the gold medal.

The hit man, Shane Stant, had been instructed to break Kerrigan's leg so she could not compete. Kerrigan's leg was only bruised, though. While she had to withdraw from the national championship competition, both Kerrigan and Harding (the winner of the national championship in Kerrigan's absence) were chosen to compete in the Olympics in February 1994.

The motive for the clubbing wasn't immediately clear, though. I mean, there was no one calling media outlets to claim responsibility for it or anything like that.

The speculative soap opera that followed quickly became a media sensation and catapulted figure skating into an entirely new stratosphere.

As Barry Wilner of the Associated Press writes, "Often considered elitist because of its expense, and only something to watch whenever the Winter Olympics rolled around, skating entered an entirely different realm because of Tonya and Nancy. That surge in popularity lasted for the rest of the 1990s."

The surge continued through the 1994 Winter Olympics, held that year in tiny Lillehammer, Norway. It must have been the biggest media circus ever to hit that community. I wasn't there so I don't know, but, from the perspective of one who watched it play out on television, the Tonya and Nancy show truly was a media circus in every sense of the phrase.

It struck me at the time — and it still does — that the Kerrigan episode was evidence of just how provincial Americans were in 1994 (and still are, for that matter). The assumption was that the top American female skater would win the gold medal — ultimately, Oksana Baiul of the Ukraine took home the gold in 1994 — but why would Americans get that idea? It ignored all the talent in the rest of the world, not to mention the history of the sport.

East German Katarina Witt dominated Olympic women's figure skating in the 1980s. Ever since women's figure skating was introduced as an Olympic event, women from other countries had ruled the sport.

Peggy Fleming was the breakthrough figure skater for the U.S. in 1968, and Dorothy Hamill won the gold in 1976, but America's top finisher in 1980 was silver medalist Linda Fratianne. Witt beat Americans Rosalynn Sumners in 1984 and Debi Thomas in 1988.

Perhaps it was Kristi Yamaguchi's triumph over favored Japanese skater Midori Ito in 1992 that ignited the fire that led, possibly inevitably, to the assault on Kerrigan 20 years ago today.

The lust for lucrative commercial deals inspired Harding's husband, Jeff Gillooly, and some other ne'er–do–wells to hatch the plot to get Kerrigan out of the way.

I guess it never occurred to the Hole–in–the–Head Gang that someone from another country — Baiul, for example — might take the gold.

I also think the Nancy–Tonya spectacle of '94 serves as something of a 21st–century cautionary tale.

Because, in spite of what Gilloly and his accomplices thought, Olympic gold isn't really worth much more than that — it brings a little fame that really doesn't last as long as they probably thought it did and a little temporary income that is gone before you know it. In 1994, mostly what Olympic gold (or the lust for it) brought to Tonya Harding was notoriety.

For her part, Kerrigan retired from amateur competition after the Olympics. She performed in some ice shows and participated in other skating–related activities, but largely her life seems to have been dedicated to her husband, whom she married the year after the Olympics, and their children.

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