In Figure Skating in the Formative Years, historian James R. Hines traces the sport’s long history from its earliest days to the mid-twentieth century, when women helped turn it into the cultural blockbuster that seizes the popular imagination whenever the Winter Olympic Games convene.
Yesterday marked the anniversary of the sport’s dismal nadir as a femme phenomenon. Fierce rivals, Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding had their sights set on 1994’s big skate-off in Lillehammer, Norway. Various members of Harding’s entourage—we use the word ironically—hired a thug who tracked Kerrigan to a rink in Detroit and attempted to lillehammer her knee.
No doubt you can remember where you were when you heard the news. No, wait, what I mean is, you can remember where you wish you were six months later: in a long coma, having missed one of the 1990’s most idiotic media frenzies. Pretty much everything came out of it looking terrible—Kerrigan, Harding, skating, the world media, and the human race. About the only positive was some interesting long-after-the-fact writing on the incident, from Sarah Marshall, for instance, or a Deadspin reminisce that captured the appeal and pathos of Harding and reminded us why Jesse Jackson once said, “Her insides must look like broken glass.”
As often happens when jamokes plan crimes, the scheme went awry. In the blizzard of tawdriness that followed, people went to trial, to jail, and in Harding’s case to lifelong exile from the pro figure skating community. Kerrigan, meanwhile, recovered and won a silver medal, an achievement made even more memorable when a live mic caught her making fun of eventual winner Oksana Baiul and when she skipped the medal ceremony to take part in a parade at Disney World. America nonetheless rewarded her celebrity by letting her host an episode of Saturday Night Live that became legendary for its terribleness, and for Nirvana being the musical guest.