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Hubbard: Memories of Harding and Kerrigan as Pyeongchang Draws Near

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Photo: The Oregonian/file/1991

Remember Joyce McKinney, the American Mormon beauty queen at the center of a sex scandal back in the 1970s, who said she would be prepared to ski naked down Everest with a rose between her teeth to please her lover?

Well, unless Donald Trump actually does so on the slopes of the Yongpyong Alpine Centre, hand-in-hand with a similarly unattired North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as the highlight of the Pyeongchang 2018 Opening Ceremony, then the upcoming Winter Olympics will have no chance of pushing Premier League football, Six Nations rugby and other assorted major domestic sporting spectacles off the back pages of the British tabloids.

Okay, so North and South Korea marching together and sharing a women’s ice hockey team may be something of a political breakthrough in snowman’s land but what the Games need to go really global is another sensation like that of 24-years-ago leading up to Lillehammer.

Then Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding, United States team-mates and occasional room-mates, became names forever linked in one of the most darkly bizarre episodes in sporting history, certainly the most notorious scandal the Winter Olympics has ever known, begging the pardon of the mass doping in Sochi four years ago.

It resulted in Harding being banned from skating for life after her ex-husband and bodyguard arranged for a hitman to cripple Kerrigan, her main rival for a gold medal.

At least on the eve of these Games, that can be re-lived through the release of the highly controversial Oscar-nominated move I, Tonya, in which Australian soap star Margot Robbie plays hard-nut Harding.

But it is apparently an oddly sympathetic portrayal which represents her as a victim of an abusive mother and husband, and plays down her proven complicity in a grotesque crime.

I have not seen the film but I know a man who has. And he hates it.

JE Vader, a leading American sports writer, has revealed he was left “nauseated” by the portrayal of ice-skating’s greatest villain.

A former Sports Illustrated columnist and co-author of Fire on Ice: The Exclusive Inside Story Of Tonya Harding, Vader says it was “painful” for him to pay for a movie ticket knowing at least some of his hard-earned cash would be received by Harding.

Audiences have been divided, even sympathetic, to the character played with critical-acclaim by Robbie.

Vader, in a damning review for The Oregonian, Harding’s local paper in Portland, for which he worked at the time, says audiences would be foolish to fall for “pure fantasy”.

He reckons that the Oscar-nominated film presents only a twisted, one-sided version of the story which has the potential to manipulate audiences into connecting with the film’s “hoax” presentation of Harding’s character.

He writes: “I thought I knew what to expect with I, Tonya and the first half of the film pretty much sticks to the hardscrabble-childhood-abusive-mother-and-husband story.” (Harding’s mother, LaVona “Sandy” Golden, has denied beating her).

“But when it came to figure skating’s establishment and the Kerrigan attack the film veers into fantasy,” Vader adds.

“Two fictional scenes where Tonya confronts snooty judges are completely unbelievable and the movie asserts that Harding and Jeff Gillooly knew nothing about the planned attack other than it might involve some threatening letters. The blame is all put on hapless ‘bodyguard’ Shawn Eckhardt, who, in actual life, is conveniently dead.

“In reality, in that bleak January 1994 Jeff Gillooly told the FBI that planning for the attack included discussions of killing Kerrigan, or cutting her Achilles tendon, before settling for breaking her landing leg and leaving her injured wearing a duct-tape gag in her hotel room – and that Tonya Harding was well in on the plans and impatient when Kerrigan wasn’t disabled right away.

“Harding pleaded guilty to a felony but served no jail time. Months later, she was banned by the skating association from sanctioned events when it was determined there was ample evidence she helped plan a brutal attack on a rival.”

He concludes his assessment of the film, which skates over Kerrigan’s part in the drama, by linking Harding’s real-life revival with a disturbing trend of disgraced stars, including Mike Tyson and OJ Simpson, all escaping from their crimes with a new-age audience, blissfully ignorant to the past.

Australian actress Margot Robbie plays the role of Tonya Harding in the new film I, Tonya. Photo: Neon

“Harding has changed her story over and over but it’s always that she is a victim and everyone else is horrible,” Vader writes.

So it was with some curiosity that British viewers watched a fascinating if briefly curtailed interview with journalist Piers Morgan on the breakfast show Good Morning Britain earlier this month.

Morgan certainly subjected her to a more intensive grilling than he did his old mucker Trump in their much-publicized – and subsequently much criticized – fawning get-together also on ITV this week.

When Morgan asked her about the attack she claimed she knew nothing. “It suits you to play the victim,” he retorted, “but the only victim was Nancy Kerrigan”.

Harding, who insists she is now called by her new married name of Price, was so enraged she stood up, removed her microphone and stormed out as Morgan persisted: “You DID know, didn’t you? You DID know.”

“No,” she hissed. “I didn’t know anything. No knowledge.”

It was on January 6, 1994 that popular brunette Kerrigan, America’s skating sweetheart, was the victim of an attack designed to eliminate her from the Olympics in Lillehammer and thus heighten the gold medal prospects of her fiercest domestic rival, the blonde, hard-faced and ruthlessly ambitious Harding.

It was to transpire that Harding’s ex-husband, Gillooly, and her bodyguard, Eckhardt, had hired a hitman, one Shane Stant, to break Kerrigan’s right leg so that she would be unable to skate.

Stant followed her to Detroit where both she and Harding were due to compete in the US Championships, leapt from behind a curtain in the women’s locker room and clubbed her on the thigh a few inches above the knee with a metal baton as she came off the ice after a practice session.

Kerrigan’s father Daniel heard her agonised screams and picked her up, TV cameras capturing the moments after the attack as she repeatedly cried out in pain, “Why?, Why?”

At the trial, Gillooly accepted a plea bargain exchange for his testimony against Harding. But he, Stant, Eckhardt, and getaway car driver Derrick Smith all served time in prison for the attack.

Harding herself avoided further prosecution and a possible jail sentence by later pleading guilty to conspiring to hinder prosecution of the attackers. She received three years probation, 500 hours of community service, and a $160,000 fine and was banned from skating for life.

As it transpired, Kerrigan’s leg was only badly bruised, not broken, but the injury forced her to withdraw from the National Championship. Harding won that event, and they were both controversially selected for the US Olympic team.

But there wasn’t to be the happy ending for Kerrigan everyone had hoped for. It was all rather anti-climatic. Though gracefully balletic and composed, her routine wasn’t quite good enough to get more than the silver behind Ukrainian Oksana Baiul.

Inevitably cast as the “baddie”, the robustly athletic Harding, all hustle and bustle, suffered a series of mishaps including a broken skate lace, finishing a tearful eighth. But hers were the only moist eyes in the house.

Despite winning the silver, Kerrigan was warned not to attend the Closing Ceremony as it was claimed she posed a security risk following death threats.

All of which resulted in the sixth-highest rated television show in US history.

No doubt the International Olympic Committee and the Pyeongchang organizers would be delighted with a slice of that sort of reaction for next month’s snow-show.

Better get your skis on, Donald.

By Alan Hubbard

Republished with permission from insidethegames.biz.

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