Another Olympics, another scandal, and old memories

by Gary Shelton on February 20, 2022

in general

Sunday, 4 a.m.

You know it's the Olympics because of the flags. You know it's the Olympics because of the anthems. You know it's the Olympics because, once again, the sport of figure skating has taken a metaporic whack on the knee.

Poor figure skating. It can't help itself.

Compared to figure skating, college football is an Eagle Scout troop and boxing is a convention of nuns. The sport just can't help. If Al Capone had married Jeff Gillooly, skating would be their love child.

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Over the years, we have seen rotten judges and lousy verdicts, we have seen one skater conspire to assault another one. We have seen voting influenced by politics. There have been controversies becuase the skirts were too long, and because they were too short. We have seen athletes punished because they did a trick that was just too difficult to perform.

Now we have seen the sport turn its head after a competitor took an illegal drug.

Anyone surprised?

Frankly, we are beyond the point of being outraged. These days, we are amused. It's a cartoon show.

Of course, I was there for the grandmother of all scandals, the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan fiasco that started in Detroit and took over the entire nation of Norway. It was the theatre of the absurd.

And on the day that Harding's goons attacked Kerrigan, I was officially on my first day ever of covering the sport.

In those days, a newspaper had to cover the trials to quality for a ticket inside the arena of the Olympics. So I was dispatched to Detroit to write a few features, get to know the coaches, etc.

I had been at Cobo Hall for about 20 minutes when a young woman reporter from Pittsburgh rushed into the press room. "A skater's been attacked!" she said. "I think it was Nancy Kerrigan."

And in my vast figure skating experience, I turned to the writer next to me. "She's the good one, right?" I asked.

And so the place became a crime scene, complete with officers handing out composite sketches (I still have mine) and giving us progress reports. A thug had come through the halls, bashed Kerrigan on the knee and fled as she cried "Why me?"

Almost immediately, Harding was questioned about. She knew nothing, she said. (She'd keep saying that until she was found guilty of conspiracy months later). Harding qualified for the team. Young Michelle Kwan qualified, too, which people forget. But Kwan was bumped to make room for Kerrrigan.

I did a guest spot on the Today Show in the ensuing weeks with Katie Couric. Another writer said that Harding should be kicked off. I defended her, saying she hadn't been found guilty of anything. The other writer suggested "this was bigger than the Constitution." I think I won the debate.

But as the days went on, Hardy looked worse and worse. Finally, her husband, Gillooly, pled guilty to orchestrating the attack. Harding stuck to her "know nothing" plan, although the three attackers could have been sharing one brain, as it were.

Eventually, the controversy went across the Atlantic to Lillehammer, Norway, and it took over the Olympics. Usually, the Winter Olympics are a lot more sedate than the summer version; there are days a writer has to work to find a story.

Not this time. It was a story when Harding showed up at the Olympic Viillage. It was a story when Harding and Kerrigan shared the ice for practice (hundreds of reporters were there). It was a story when a couple of reporters hacked Harding's private message server And yes, it was a story when the competiton began.

I'll never forget Harding sitting on a stage, answering questions. The moderator asked us to take it easy. Still, the first question was "Tanya, you lied to us about your smoking, and yoiu lied to us about knowing anything bout the attack? Why should we believe a word you're saying now?"

When the skating began, Kerrigan was very good. Harding wasn't. She broke a lace, and she cried, and she finished eighth. In my basic knowledge of the sport, I thought Kerrigan won. But a Soviet bloc voting gave the win to Oksana Baiul.

It's funny. Over the years, the impressions have changed. Tonya scuffled around. She was supposed to box a transvestite once, but pulld out "because of dignity." The promoter responded "what dignity."

But time changes things. With Tonya's movie, with her willingness to talk, with her personal scandals, she has become earthy while Kerrigan has been portrayed as elitist. Maybe it's because she doesn't talk much about the scandal.

Everyone else still does.

Probably, they always will.

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