Monday, January 20, 2014

The Tonya Harding Scandal, Twenty Years Later

This past week a sports documentary ran as part of ESPN Film’s critically praised 30 for 30 series. Entitled “The Price of Gold”, director Nanette Burstein’s film takes us back twenty years, to 1994. Its release was intended to coincide with the latest Winter Olympics, which will begin in Sochi, Russia, in a little less than a month. We lay our scene at a moment of high drama that consumed the nation and the news media.

We, the audience, are placed directly in the middle of the salacious, bizarre Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan ice skating scandal. In this account, Tonya Harding is portrayed much more sympathetically than many past accounts. The film focuses squarely on the diminutive, blonde-haired tomboy from working class Portland, Oregon. Nancy Kerrigan, surprisingly, remains a static character from start to finish. We don’t really get to know her intimately, but then, that is the point. This is Tonya’s show.

The story that unfolds before us shows the life of a talented female athlete who was her own worst enemy, a renegade skater who refused to play by the rules. Her unfortunate predilection to make bad judgments and to follow even worse advice proved to be Harding’s undoing. As director Burstein concedes at the outset of the film, it’s easy, perhaps too easy, to see Nancy Kerrigan as the victim in this drama. The same cannot be easily said for her now disgraced challenger.

It is true that Kerrigan endured pain and emotional trauma. From the very beginning of this strange soap opera, the elegant ice princess won the sympathies of the entire country. But upon closer examination, Kerrigan’s rival, Tonya Harding, was in some ways a victim herself. In particular, Harding was a victim of circumstance, a determined, stubborn woman who nevertheless surrounded herself with an inner circle comprised entirely of complete losers. One such ne’er do well was her first husband, Jeff Gillooly. Gillooly’s motives for hatching an ill-fated plan to remove a skilled skater from Olympic competition were purely monetary.

Should Harding win gold in the upcoming 1994 Winter Olympics, lucrative endorsement deals were almost certain to come her way. She was never fully accepted by the staid establishment of the sport, for a variety of reasons, but was unbeatable when at the top of her game. Gillooly knew that well. He was a man without much in the way of ambition, who when he married Tonya was working for little more than minimum wage in a warehouse. Lifting boxes of hard liquor was dull, unsatisfying work, and Gillooly saw his wife as a meal ticket out of that life.

Gillooly concocted a plot with three equally clueless goons who somehow managed to successfully pull off the attack in spite of themselves. Alas, they were quickly fingered for the crime for loudly bragging about it to almost everyone who would listen. At first, Tonya Harding was presumed to know nothing about the conspiracy, but under increasing pressure, in addition to ravenous media scrutiny, valid questions began to surface. She skillfully evaded probing inquiries for a time, but eventually admitted only that she’d known a few mostly superficial details about the plot for a long time.

Law enforcement convicted Tonya on a minor charge, for which she spent no time in jail. The United States Figure Skating Alliance, however, concluded its own investigation with a very different result. It found that Harding was aware of the plot from the beginning. As a result, Harding was completely banned from the sport and stripped of her first place 1994 finish at the US Nationals competition, a result which had qualified her for the Olympic games to follow.

Now a pariah, blackballed from most skating contests, her star faded and her name became a punchline. Twenty years later, Harding is understandably bitter about the experience. She still swears she had nothing to do with the planning and execution of the attack. Her life since retirement from the rink has been up and down, full of minor skirmishes with the law and attempts to court fame and fortune once again.

After one considers the pitiful circumstances of Tonya Harding’s youth, it makes one wonder whether or not any person can ever completely escape the environment of his or her birth. Harding’s mother was an alcoholic. She was frequently verbally and sometimes physically abusive towards her daughter. In addition, she held Tonya to an impossibly high standard, which in part spurred her on to greater heights, but at times shattered her confidence. As a skater, Tonya displayed great strength but also great vulnerability.

Tonya sought to escape her mother’s caustic tongue and unstable home life by marrying Gillooly. Instead she ended up with a husband who was just as prone to hit her as well as to scream his displeasure in her face. He was her first boyfriend ever and their tumultuous marriage would eventually end in divorce four years later. Making sense of her difficult upbringing is crucial to understanding her actions and motivations.

As a young girl, Harding lived a hand-to-mouth existence, many times not knowing where her next meal would come from. A prodigy, she devoted her life to ice skating at the expense of everything else. By the age of 6, she showed a kind of maturity and presence on the ice that was rare for a girl not yet out of elementary school. Tonya learned several hard lessons over the course of her mostly forgettable childhood, one of which is that proficiency and skill alone are not always enough for success or contentment.

Ice skating is a sport that rewards demure, classical feminine beauty. It is very similar to a beauty pageant, despite the fact that it is a physically demanding sport that requires constant practice and training. Harding looked like the product of a trailer park to many seasoned observers and was totally unwilling to tone down her rough-around-the-edges image. While never a refined, graceful skater, she possessed physical strength on par with many male skaters and a doggedly ambitious blue collar work ethic. In an elitist sport where physical appearances mattered greatly, Tonya could never be, nor ever wanted to be the epitome of feminine grace and charm.

Americans have a somewhat schizophrenic relationship with the unconventional. A measure of our adoration is a craving for that which is edgy and rebellious, but too much panache and daring can be easily seen as disrespectful and arrogant. Harding never learned to play the game, or maybe that was something for which she never much cared. Her fall was due, in part, to the dysfunction that formed her and an inability to escape toxic environments. She jumped from the frying pan into the fire, exchanging one unhealthy situation with another. Some of us leave dysfunction behind, and some of us are forever defined by it. The life of Tonya Harding is, first and foremost, a tragedy.    

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