Judging Tonya

At the start of the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, I was 11 years old and the most confusing question in my life was: why is there another Winter Olympics when the last one was only two years ago?

With the excitement of the previous games still fresh in my mind, I had decided I would devote as much of the half-term holidays as I could to devouring as many events possible. I established my base, knelt on the beige living room carpet, inches from the TV.

Coverage of the figure skating program was extensive in the UK because of the return of ice dance pair Torville and Dean, one of a handful of British gold medal winners at the Winter games. The Tonya/Nancy story was not the main event for us, and I would have been glued to the women’s event anyway — a sport where people actually pay more attention to the women! I thought the added drama was welcome, but not essential.

Watching the short program, I quickly determined my favourites. Veteran Katarina Witt was an instant hit, skating to music from Robin Hood Princes of Thieves (a film obsessively celebrated by my sister and I), dressed on-theme in a forest huntress outfit. The commentators were tripping over themselves to praise her grace and artistry, and seemed to treat the fact that she couldn’t match the jumps and technical complexity in her competitor’s routines almost as a positive. She was, they claimed, skating almost purely for the joy of the spectators, the pinnacle of feminine beauty as sport.

Contrast this with my other favourite, France’s Surya Bonaly. I remember the commentators talking at length, and with dismay, about how she skated in straight lines, and somehow this was to do with her having been a gymnast. This, to me, seemed preposterous: firstly, how can you skate straight lines around an ovular rink, and secondly, so what if she did? She had an energy, maybe defiance, that I hadn’t seen in the other competitors. Where others’ forced smiles barely covered their fear, it was fun watching her. The commentators interpreted her style with words like “strong,” “athletic,” “hard-working.” They did not mention she was black. They did not mention she was the only black woman in the field.


The other skater they called out for athleticism over artistry was Tonya Harding. Maybe they made veiled references to the attack on Nancy, but these were BBC commentators. They talked about Tonya measuredly, like she was that embarrassing cousin whose salacious life they wanted to know all about, but were far too uptight to bring up publicly.

I didn’t know all the details about the scandal then — as far as I cared to know, Tonya’s husband whacked Nancy’s knees with a crowbar — but I didn’t need to. There was something about her that I took an instant dislike to: the deep blush that covered her face, the tautness of her skin from the way her hair was pulled back, the way that among all the gaudy outfits, somehow only hers looked cheap. There were so many words I did not have at my disposal then, but I did not need them to decide that this was not a good woman.

The final straw came in her free skate, with the shoelace incident. It was quite black and white to me: she’d come on, mucked up her first jump then gone crying to the judge about her laces to try and get a do-over, hoisting her leg over their desk for effect. She was snivelling like a schoolgirl trying to get her own way, and as a then-schoolgirl who was quite adept at getting my own way, it was an embarrassment to all of us.

It was tantamount to cheating, as was getting your opponent’s knees smashed in. There and then, I shifted all my allegiance to Nancy, who up to that point I’d had little opinion about. My mild disgruntlement at her only claiming silver was more to do with my dislike of the winner, Oksana Baiul, as I couldn’t believe that a 16-year-old could have the grace required of an Olympic champion.

By the end of the 1994 Winter Olympics, I was 12 years old and quite certain I’d picked the right side.

Even before the Olympics, details began to emerge about the attack on Kerrigan, with the whole plot being so convoluted and warped by the legal and media circus around it as well as its inherent melodrama that it’s still hard to be sure what really happened.

We already knew that the attacker was a man called Shane Stant, hired by Harding’s abusive ex-husband Jeff Gillooly and her bodyguard Shawn Eckhardt, via Stant’s uncle Derrick Smith. These men — fantasists about their own capabilities, yet wildly incompetent — met to discuss in detail how they wanted to go about assaulting Kerrigan, briefly toying with murdering her, before deciding simple debilitation was enough to achieve the aim of stopping her skating. This they confessed to the FBI.

Both Gillooly and Eckhert implicated Tonya as an accomplice, which she denied, but some dubious dumpster evidence was enough to bring her to trial when she returned from Lillehammer. So the legal system and the public finally got their chance to openly judge her: did she know about the attack or not? Guilty or innocent?

The outcome was inconclusive: Tonya eventually pleaded guilty to hindering the prosecution, in a bargain that kept her out of jail, but put the final nail in the coffin of her competitive skating career. She was stripped of her titles and banned from all future United States Figure Skating Association events.

I didn’t follow the trial; it didn’t attract constant coverage in the UK, and in those early-internet days there wasn’t the expectation of just finding out what happened. Tonya slipped out of my consciousness, a sidenote to commemorate every four years.

When Tonya resurfaced on Celebrity Boxing in 2002, I was twenty and embraced this news with same enthusiastic irony as I did everything as a student. Too many late nights watching John Waters films gave me a frame of reference that I hadn’t had as a child, and a lexicon to find the word I thought best fit her: trash.

Learning more about what had happened to Tonya since Lillehammer, the many bizarre episodes of her life made her perfect for this treatment: the court case that finally condemned her, if not for plotting the original crime, for the cover-up; the on-off relationship with the husband she didn’t seem able to leave; film and TV bit parts; saving a collapsed woman’s life with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, and finally attempting to become a professional boxer.

While Nancy had made a few indiscreet comments that undermined the public’s impression of her as an implacable ice princess, she maintained a largely dignified career both in competition and on the pro circuit, which made it hard to make fun of her (although my best friend did once try to convince me he’d seen a documentary saying she’d run off with an air-hostess). Tonya, though, I felt was there to be ridiculed.

It wasn’t until I was past thirty when I started to put any real consideration into the truth behind the events in 1994, and the lives of Tonya and Nancy. Because of my familiarity and minor obsession with the whole affair, I gladly took every opportunity to delve back into it when prompted. And those opportunities were surprisingly regular: at least a cursory mention every Winter Olympics; various anniversaries; one of the protagonists popping up with a new endeavour, prompting another round of think-pieces. And now, of course, the release of I, Tonya, the biopic charting Tonya’s fateful course to the ’94 games.

Because women’s sport remains so ignored, you can guarantee this will continue to happen. 23 years later this is still the biggest media story in the history of any women’s sport, and it’s not a story anyone remembers for sporting achievement.

The real Tonya Harding story should be about how incredible it was that a woman, raised in an abusive and impoverished household, managed to become a world-class athlete in the first place. A woman who built the strength and skill to land jumps still only a handful of elite skaters are capable of, practising at a shopping mall rink. A woman whose career was ruined by an abusive and interfering husband that she was unable to get away from for years afterwards, and yet who still reinvented herself multiple times to support herself.

For all I love the concept of the THNK1994 museum, and its ironic look at the media hoopla around the scandal, one of its conceits — and for many participants in the ever-ongoing Harding/Kerrigan discourse — is that you are either Team Tonya, or you are Team Nancy.

It’s another ultimatum to judge: did Tonya know about the attack? Is she guilty, or merely foolish? Is Nancy such a perfect princess after all? I decided that I don’t care about the answers to any of those questions. I just want to us to stop pitting women against each other.

I’m not going to stop enjoying the ridiculous elements of this story, but I think I have the perspective and compassion now to understand what I couldn’t when I was younger, avidly joining in the global event to judge one women competing in an event whose raison d’être is to judge women.

I know I can go to any YouTube video of Tonya Harding skating and see comments that remind me of the opinions I had as a child. I can see how quickly the judgement spirals into hate (well, no surprise there for YouTube comments), and how complicit we are when we fail to combat it. I can remember all the times I’ve been silently complicit as men hurl comments at women that I know are wrong, because it’s harder to speak up and, after all, we were all trained to judge women.

I don’t know how to un-train and un-program a lot of this stuff, but I know there are some things I can do to start.

I can hear the language that pretends to be praise, that is really condemnation. I can understand when words are used to describe a standard only attainable to a certain class or colour, which implicitly excludes the rest of the world. I can decide that if a woman is broke and wants to monetise what she has, be that fame, or even notoriety — this should not open her to ridicule. I can stop any discussion of more than one woman becoming a zero-sum game where someone has to win, and someone has to lose. I can refuse any more judgement.

I, Tonya doesn’t open here in the UK until February. Early reviews are good. Forbes says it indicts the patriarchy. Collider says it forces us to reevaluate the misogyny of those Games. NPR says we, as a culture, are the ones who are implicated in her destruction. Perhaps Margot Robbie will do for Tonya Harding what Sarah Paulson did for Marcia Clarke, one of the other most notable women metaphorically burned at the stake during the mid-90s. Perhaps it will push us past our urge to judge Harding and the other women in her life. Either way, I can now watch Harding’s story with a critical eye and form my own conclusions.

Sally does something with computers for a living. Beyond this, she enjoys making gifs, dreaming up stories, and overthinking. She lives over a river in the South of England, but her heart belongs forever to the North.

Sally has written 23 articles for us.

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