A healthy dose of competition plays an important role in an athlete's success, but during the early '90s, figure skater Tonya Harding took her rivalry against Nancy Kerrigan to a whole new level, resulting in a scandal that played out like a Lifetime movie.
In fact, their story did inspire a couple of documentaries, TV movies, and an upcoming biopic, but before we delve into that, let’s revisit what went down between the two Olympic skaters.
On January 6th, seven weeks before the 1994 Olympic Winter Games were scheduled to begin in Lillehammer, Norway, Harding’s longtime rival, Nancy Kerrigan, was viciously attacked. She had just finished a practice session when a hitman named Shane Stant injured her with a police baton.
The doctor who treated Kerrigan told the New York Times that “he [the perpetrator] was clearly trying to debilitate her.”
Stant fled the scene, but video footage of Kerrigan crying and asking, “Why? Why me?” was later leaked to the public.
She later explained, “People made such a big deal and almost, like, complaining, like, why would I say that? Well, after getting attacked, you don’t know what you’re going to say. But I think it’s a reasonable question. Like, ‘Why did this just happen? What happened? Like, why?’”
Due to the injuries she sustained to her knees, Kerrigan had no choice but to watch Harding skate her way to the top of the scoreboard at the Women’s U.S. National Championships in Detroit, and earn a spot on the Olympic team. But in a surprising twist, the U.S. Figure Skating Association (USFA) also named the extremely talented Kerrigan to the team.
All the while, investigators were pursuing the case in hopes of nabbing the suspect before they struck again. They suspected that a crazy fan may have been behind the attack, so it wasn’t until they received a lead from a Portland-based minister that they started to expand their suspect list.
The clergyman told the investigators that he heard a recording of three men plotting to hurt Kerrigan. The men were eventually identified as Harding's bodyguard, Shawn Eric Eckardt, her ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, and Stant.
By the time the Olympics started in February, this information reached the public’s ears, and people all over the nation began to speculate about Harding’s involvement. Authorities began to piece things together, and it didn’t take much longer for them to figure out Harding and Gillooly weren’t innocent. According to the reports, Gillooly paid Stant $6,500 to knock Kerrigan out of the competition.
The media frenzy surrounding the incident dubbed “the whack heard around the world,” turned Harding and Kerrigan into even bigger international sensations and pop culture figures. Although the extent of Harding’s involvement in what New York Times reporter Jere Longman described as “the most horrifying, embarrassing and ultimately beneficial moment in the history of the sport,” remained unknown, news reports continued to pit the two women against each other.
"The media couldn't wait to tell this story of [Harding as] a hard-knock kid from a hardscrabble background who belied the stereotype [and] went against all the norms of what a world-class skater should be," recalled Ann Schatz, a Portland-based sportscaster who covered the case. "It didn't work out the way we envisioned."
Instead, Harding was portrayed as the “evil witch,” and Kerrigan as the survivor “princess,” who eventually got the podium moment she was almost denied. Kerrigan embodied everything that the figure-skating world wanted in their athletes, while Harding refused to conform. She was a talented skater, but unlike Kerrigan, who appeared ladylike and poised, Harding’s life wasn’t very stable, she also smoked, drove a pickup truck, and skated to songs by rock bands like ZZ Top.
She later wrote in her autobiography, The Tonya Tapes, that the U.S. Figure Skating Association was on her case even before she was accused of assaulting Kerrigan. The disgraced athlete claimed that the USFA tried to talk her into taking her ex-husband back so she would appear to have blissful domestic life while competing at the games.
"They said I had a stable life when I was with him – married, settled down," she wrote. "They wanted to make sure I was still going to be that way to go to the Olympic Games."
But things only got worse for Harding once the Olympics began.