An Unfortunate Episode: Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan

Tonya Harding
Tonya Harding

The saga of Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan will replay on ESPN’s 30 for 30 “The Price of Gold” Thursday evening. But will it recall all of the pop culture artifacts surrounding the story?

Tonight ESPN will debut the 30 for 30 documentary “The Price of Gold,” which chronicles the events surrounding the 1994 women’s figure skating national championship and the attack on Nancy Kerrigan perpetrated by a goon working for the (now ex-)husband of rival skater Tonya Harding. To call the month-and-a-half of media coverage leading up to the games a circus would be a gross understatement: this story consumed all media. Granted, I grew up outside of Detroit where the attack happened, so my media consumption was probably well beyond the average saturation point.

The story played out like a movie in the most fascinating way. Despite the intense media scrutiny in Tonya’s alleged involvement, she tried to float above the fray to no avail. Pressed for time before entering the ice for the final performance in Lillehammer, Tonya’s skate was not lacing properly. As the opening notes of the theme from Jurassic Park played1, Tonya’s lace broke and she had to get special permission from the judges. The breakdown was not unlike the final moments of Poe’s Telltale Heart. Nancy performed her routine, but—as in most female-sports movies—she finished in second place. The winner of the event was Oksana Baiul of Ukraine. There was a delay in the medal ceremony because, having recently split off from USSR, the Ukranian national anthem was not handy. Nancy didn’t know this at the time and was caught on camera saying something along the lines of “what’s the holdup? Is Oksana crying again?”

That bit of snark is the factor that, for me, makes this event in sports history so fascinating. Nancy Kerrigan, at least at the time, did not come across as the nicest person. I suppose the term “ice princess” could be applied. That in no way condones what happened to her, but it does feed into that high school part of the lizard brain where the perverted sense of justice resides. It’s the part of the lizard brain that should be starved, but as humans it is not always possible. CBS didn’t mind: the finals still rank as one of the most-watched non-Super Bowl sporting events of all time. During my time at Syracuse, my TV business class looked at a budget projection sheet for New York City’s CBS affiliate for fiscal year 93-94. The purpose of the exercise was to learn how to read a budget sheet, not point out how wildly inaccurate those predicted numbers, drafted in early 1993, would be.

This class was around the time the Vancouver Olympics were wrapping up. On Tuesdays during the school year, my advisor would host screenings of shows from the past and present, both for historical significance and for LOLs. Often these sessions would end with my fellow die-hards asking “Do you have [obscure ’70s variety show]?” or “Do you have [1984 sitcom we saw an ad for in another screening]? 2 I asked if he had the 1994 Women’s Figure Skating Finals. His eyes lit up and we ended up with four weeks of Tonya/Nancy programming. It was my proudest achievement in grad school.

There was the NBC TV Movie about the incident called Tonya & Nancy: The Inside Story, starring Webster‘s mom as Tonya’s abusive mother. The premise was about an editor debating the ethics of sensationalizing the story, which made the movie about as exciting as that description sounds. The incident was also around the time of the Lorena Bobbitt incident, both of which comedienne Julie Brown satirized in the premium cable special Attack of the 5’2 Women. I think we zoned out during the Lorena story, but the musical number in the Tonya story had its moments:

In 2002, boxing was the newest trend in reality television and Fox led the charge with a series of specials called Celebrity Boxing. One of the featured bouts had Tonya facing Paula Jones. As was the case in many of the bouts, one person was there to collect a paycheck, the other was there for blood (guess which was which).

The last installment of what was a good idea at the time Tonya and Nancy month was a documentary about the Tonya & Nancy: the Rock Opera. One of my favorite discoveries in my day job was that the book for the show was written by an alumna of the school where I work. My reaction when I made the connection: I should have guessed. It also made me feel like I made the right choice in where I went to school.

  1. Yes, that really was the music for Tonya’s routine  
  2. The answer 93% of the time was yes. I miss Tuesdays.  

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About Mike McComb 656 Articles
Mike has been writing about TV online since 2008, when he started the blog WTF Little House on the Prairie? The blog was a project to practice writing about television analytically prior to getting an MA in Television-Radio-Film from Syracuse University, or as he likes to call it "TV Camp." After a lengthy stint at TVLatest, Mike wanted to launch a site that brought in classic TV, diamonds in the rough, and the shows everybody watches. E-mail: mike@whatelseison.tv