Film & Television

I, Tonya: The Mostly True Story of Ice Skating’s Most Striking Woman

For figure skating fans, all eyes are on PyeongChang and the 2018 Winter Olympics. Team U.S.A. has already won the Bronze medal and more metal is expected from several individual skaters and pairs. As always, the personalities are as bright and shiny as the routines. So far, we’ve been delighted by the “Shib Sibs” (Maia and Alex Shibutani), inspired by the determination (and sportsmanship) of Adam Rippon, and carried away by the exuberance and tremendous skill of Mirai Nagasu. There’s even been a wardrobe malfunction, although not for an American. South Korean ice dancer Yura Min kept her cool when a strategic hook came undone mere moments into her performance. Alas, a quick and arguably necessary adjustment cost her a couple of points, but she earned worldwide admiration for grace under pressure.

Still, no matter how much drama we witness on the ice in the next two weeks, nothing will compare to the drama off the ice back in 1994. That was the year of Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan.

As we all remember, just weeks before the U.S. Olympic team was selected, Kerrigan was attacked at a practice session for the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. Shane Stant, a thug-for-hire, hit Kerrigan above the knee in an attempt to break her leg and end her career. The FBI soon traced Stant back to Harding’s ex-husband Jeff Gillooly, and her sometime bodyguard Shawn Eckherd. Harding denied knowledge of the attack and she and Kerrigan (whose leg was bruised, not broken) went to the Olympics in Lillehammer amidst an unprecedented media frenzy. The New York Times described it as, “one of the biggest scandals in American sports history.” And, gold medalist Scott Hamilton observed with dismay that “the world press was turning the Olympics into just another sensational tabloid event.” On the bright side, viewership of the women’s competition broke records.

Between news footage of her sobbing “Why? Why? Why?” and cover stories on Time, Newsweek, and People, Kerrigan quickly became America’s sweetheart. She had classic good looks and the balletic build that pleased both judges and fans. Her comeback story made everyone feel good. And, when she earned the silver medal (beaten by Ukraine’s elfin Oksana Baiul), many thought she had been robbed.

Harding, on the other hand, came in eighth after a snapped shoelace that required a tearful plea to the judges for a re-skate. Although she had denied involvement in her rival’s attack, she was eventually charged and convicted of obstructing its investigation. (She admitted to knowing about it after the fact, but claimed that Gillooly threatened to kill her if she went to the authorities.) While Kerrigan went on to enjoy lucrative endorsement deals, Harding became a cautionary tale and a punchline. Dave Letterman featured her in one of his famous “Top 10” lists, and jokes abounded, such as:

“What is Tonya Harding’s favorite book?
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.”

Or,

“Why should they let Tonya Harding sing the National Anthem at the Olympics?
She has a good set of pipes.”

As irresistible as the whole affair was at the time (I confess, with remorse now, that I attended a company Halloween party that year as Nancy to my coworker’s Tonya), Harding’s story was never simple. The world conveniently accepted Kerrigan as an angel and Harding as a devil. But the truth, as with most stories that sell tabloids, is much more complicated.

Interestingly, the terrific movie I Tonya, nominated for three Oscars this year, doesn’t strive to tell the truth so much as to explore different truths. The screenplay by Steve Rogers (Hope Floats and Stepmom) allows a number of players in the real-life soap opera to have their say. Building on various interviews with Gillooly, Eckerd, Harding and her apparently monstrous mother LaVona Golden, the narrative is a patchwork quilt of memory, accusations, and reluctant apologies. Back-to-back scenes contradict each other. Whether these are accurate accounts, pure fiction, or some grey area in between, the movie is almost as addictive as the actual events. And it’s utterly and undeniably entertaining.

Directed by Australian Craig Gillespie, I Tonya traces the skater’s life from the time she was three, when her mother pushes their way into an ice skating class. Little Tonya is determined and remarkably talented, easily beating older girls in local competitions. “Stop talking to her,” her mother yells from alongside the rink when Tonya seems to have made a friend, “That girl’s your enemy!” So much for encouraging any sense of healthy competition. If the girl’s abrasive mother were her only problem, she would already be skating at a disadvantage. Add to this an irreparably broken home (with both divorce and dysfunction), lack of education, an abusive spouse, minimum wage income, and the defiant attitude that comes from growing up on the wrong side of the tracks, and it’s easy to see why Harding was thought of as figure skating’s bad girl long before Kerrigan’s knee was bashed.

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