Tonya, Nancy and O.J.
Anyone old enough to watch the news in 1994 probably needs no last names to recognize the three athletes who rocked the sports world that year with scandals that fascinated the nation and dominated tabloid media.
O.J. Simpson, suspected of double-murder and riding in the back seat of a white Ford Bronco, led police on a high-speed car chase that was televised live in mid-June. The football star’s murder trial captivated TV viewers later that year. But it was an equally bizarre, sordid story involving two figure skaters that got the year off on a strange twist.
Twenty years later, their names are still inextricably linked — Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding — and their saga is the subject of rival documentaries this month, one on ESPN and another to air during the Sochi Olympics on NBC.
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On Jan. 6, 1994, Kerrigan, the defending U.S. champion and a medal favorite for the Lillehammer Olympics, was whacked in the right knee with a crowbar after a practice at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Detroit. Turns out the ex-husband of rival skater Harding had hired a band of bumbling thugs to carry out the assault in a plot to remove Kerrigan from Harding’s Olympic path.
The image of Kerrigan, sobbing on the ground in a white lace dress, clutching her knee while wailing, “Why me? Why me?” was broadcast and rebroadcast for weeks. The crime was dubbed: “The Whack Heard Round the World.”
Kerrigan was forced to drop out of the national championships and Harding won. Within days, a demure sport known for sequined dresses and classical music was embroiled in a criminal soap opera and thrust into a media maelstrom.
The story led the nightly news and was featured on tabloid TV and plastered on the covers of tabloid magazines all over the world. Reporters from Europe, Asia and Australia went to Portland, Ore., Harding’s hometown, to camp outside her home and the courthouse as the story unfolded.
Late-night TV hosts riffed on the melodrama, as did Saturday Night Live.
Kerrigan rehabilitated the knee and competed at the 1994 Olympics against Harding, who drew a crowd of 1,600 reporters to her first news conference in Lillehammer.
Mike Moran was the lead press officer for the U.S. Olympic Committee then, and he told TeamUSA.org that it was “the most bizarre yet the most rewarding period” of his career.
“I can’t imagine what it would be like if this were to have happened today with social media,” Moran said. “We would have been overwhelmed. Our website would have crashed. It would have been outrageous. … It got to be silly. I remember Bob Condron [another press officer] had to find out what Tonya said to her coach during the practice. He came back and said, ‘Tonya told her coach it was extremely chilly in the arena.’ That was news.”
The story reached a crescendo on Feb. 23, the night of the Olympic short program, when 48.5 percent of the nation tuned in to see the drama. It was the sixth-highest rated TV show of all time, trailing only the final episode of M*A*S*H, the “Who Shot J.R.?” episode of Dallas, a Roots episode, and Super Bowls XVI and XVII.
Kerrigan wound up winning the silver medal behind gold medalist Oksana Baiul after a close free skate that left the judges split 5-4. Harding finished in eighth place after stopping to complain of a broken skate lace.
As a result of the Tonya-and-Nancy story, figure skating got a huge boost and capitalized on the unprecedented media coverage.
Nobody knows better how big it was than Tom Collins, who for 37 years ran and promoted the Champions on Ice tour, a traveling show that included Olympic and professional figure skaters. At the height of the sport’s popularity, in the mid-1990s, his tour was reportedly grossing $50 million.
“Oh my gosh, skating was huge after the Tonya and Nancy thing,” said Collins, reached by phone Monday. “Johnny Carson, Jay Leno and David Letterman were opening their monologues nightly with figure skating jokes. It seems almost every night there was a figure skating show on TV. My business doubled and tripled from the fall of ’94 through ’98. Instead of one show in a city, we’d do three.
“Unfortunately, I think we may have killed the golden goose. Over-saturation. We jammed skating down the public’s throat, and they got tired of it. But it sure was fun to be part of it during that time. I remember being in Washington [D.C.] and the hotel manager told me they had Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen and Neil Diamond in there, and their staff was more excited to meet our skaters. They were that big a deal.”
Said Brian Boitano, the 1988 Olympic gold medalist: “It opened up skating to a whole new audience of people who hadn’t watched skating before. It was definitely the tabloid aspect of it that attracted people, but it brought a new audience in.”
Popularity in figure skating began to wane by 2000 and has been unable to recapture the nation’s attention except during a few weeks of the Winter Olympics every four years.
Both women are mothers now and in their 40s. Kerrigan married her agent, Jerry Solomon, and they live in Boston with their three children. She still skates in shows and will be a TV commentator at the Sochi Olympics. Shortly after the 1994 Olympics, Harding pled guilty to hindering the prosecution in the case. She served three years’ probation, was fined $160,000 and lost membership in the U.S. Figure Skating Association, which made her ineligible to compete. She dabbled in boxing and professional wrestling. She is now remarried with a 2-year-old son and lives in rural Oregon. She helps her husband with his woodworking job.
As for Harding’s goons — her ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, who changed his name to Jeff Stone, pleaded guilty to racketeering and served two years in prison. Shawn Eckardt, Derrick Smith and Shane Stant pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit second-degree assault and served 18-month prison sentences.
“I still don’t fully understand why this story became so huge, but the media ran with it and the public couldn’t get enough,” Collins said. “We’ll never see anything like it again.”