Storin: Remember the Tonya and Nancy scandal?

storapse@aol.comFebruary 13, 2014 

Ed Storin, columnist, The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette


It was a simple question with no hidden motives, just trying to make conversation:

"Are you having any fun yet?"

Watching the figure skating events on TV at the Winter Games in Sochi jogged my memories of that day 20 years ago at the Oslo, Norway airport.

It was the morning after the Lillehammer Olympics ended and the airport was clogged with athletes, fans and media booked on flights back to the United States.

As I stood in line to check in there was suddenly a commotion, as several TV camera men followed a young lady and her entourage.

Tonya Harding was doing her best to ignore the cameras and refused to be interviewed.

The figure skater had long ago had enough of all that. Harding and Nancy Kerrigan, once her teammate and primary rival, were THE story of the 1994 Olympics.

The bizarre saga linking the two stars had started six weeks earlier at the U.S. Olympic trials in Detroit. Kerrigan was attacked with a blunt instrument on her knee in a bumbling plot concocted by Harding's ex-husband and a few friends during the U.S. Skating trials in Detroit.

The goal to eliminate Kerrigan from the competition didn't work, as she was awarded a place on the U.S. Olympic team despite her injury. But during Nancy's recovery period, as the conspiracy was revealed, the story captivated the nation.

By the time the pair got to Lillehammer, the media had gone bonkers. Every move, every practice session by either skater, was attended by hundreds of TV and news people.

The climax came at the big event -- the women's short program -- and nearly half the U.S. households tuned in to make it the sixth highest rated TV show in history. And it was a flop.

Kerrigan got the Olympic silver medal as 16-year-old Oksana Baiul, an unheralded Ukrainian, took the gold. Harding's skate lace broke, one in a series of misadventures during her routine, and she left the rink in tears, finishing eighth.

Who could blame her for not wanting to be interviewed at the airport? I had no intention of trying, but then she sat down next to me as we both waited for our flight to New York.

I couldn't resist with what, 20 years later, I consider my smart-ass question: "Are you having any fun yet?"

Deservedly, I got an icy stare and quickly Harding moved to a different seat.

In retrospect, the national image of "Good Girl" Kerrigan and "Bad Girl" Harding was probably exaggerated. Actually, growing up they had more in common than a love for competitive skating.

Both were from blue-collar families and are now in their 40s, married with children.

Kerrigan lives in Boston with her husband, agent Jerry Solomon, and three children. She does skating shows and makes corporate appearances.

Harding lives in rural central Oregon with her husband, a wood worker, and 3-year-old son. But compared to Kerrigan, she has had a hard life.

Tonya has tried boxing and acting -- she was once booed off the stage in Portland. Now she is trying to stay out of the limelight, according to USA Today's Christine Brennan.

I suspect both skaters have mixed emotions about Lillehammer and their Olympics experience. If so, that is a shame.

Neither earned the coveted gold medal, but the 1994 Olympics will forever be remembered for the Kerrigan-Harding saga.

With previous headliners like Dorothy Hamill, Peggy Fleming and Katarina Witt, figure skating was already a very popular TV event. But Nancy and Tonya made it a must-see event on that February night in 1994. In the 20 years since, the ratings haven't come close.

If they are watching the gold medal competition next week, I hope they take some satisfaction from that piece of skating and television history.

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