The Bizarre Attack On Olympic Skater Nancy Kerrigan Remains A Mystery 20 Years Later

Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya HardingAP Photo/Phil Sandlin, FileTonya Harding, left, and Nancy Kerrigan, right

Next week is the 20th anniversary of the odd clubbing of figure skater Nancy Kerrigan, and The Believer has a sympathetic new article about the anti-hero in that drama, Tonya Harding.

That story, by Sarah Marshall, questions the narrative that followed the Jan. 6, 1994 attack on Kerrigan which The New York Times dubbed “Jealousy on Ice.” A large man attacked Kerrigan that day, banging her leg and prompting her to utter the famous phrase, “Why me?

Rumours began swirling after the attack that Kerrigan’s skating rival Harding was behind the clubbing, which left its victim only temporarily incapacitated and didn’t even interfere with her ability to compete in the Olympics that year.

Indeed, Harding’s ex-husband Jeff Gillooly eventually pleaded guilty to helping orchestrate the assault with his ex-wife’s bodyguard Shawn Eckhardt. Gillooly also said Harding helped plot the clubbing, and she eventually admitted to interfering with the investigation into the attack.

But Harding never admitted to actually planning the attack, and Marshall argues in The Believer that it’s quite plausible his ex wasn’t involved in the assault. Marshall also writes that Harding was vilified for not being traditionally feminine and for being supposedly “white trash.”

While I agree it’s plausible that Harding wasn’t involved with the assault, I’m not sure it’s likely she had nothing to do with it. Marshall also writes that witnesses corroborated that Harding had called a friend who wrote for “American Skating World” to find out where Kerrigan practiced, and that Harding had gone with her ex to her bodyguard’s house when the two men were planning the attack.

Still, neither of these allegations is conclusive, and we will probably never know exactly what happened, especially since Harding avoided a trial by pleading guilty to hindering the investigation.

It is clear, as Marshall writes, that after the Kerrigan attack the media played up Harding’s personal shortfalls rather than her awesome strengths (mainly, being the first American woman to do a successful triple axle in competition). One New York Times article pointed out that she was an asthmatic who smoked, and that she’d been evicted from an apartment for failing to pay rent.

Another news account treated her guilt as a foregone conclusion. From a December 1994 People Magazine article:

If there were such a thing as an unwanted poster, it might carry Tonya Harding’s face. In the first days of 1994, she was the women’s U.S. national figure skating champion, with plans for “whipping butts” at the Winter Olympics. Then came the goon bashing of her rival Nancy Kerrigan. Now Harding is an admitted felon … However much she tried to hurt Kerrigan, it was nothing compared with what she did to herself.

20 years after the fact, Kerrigan still seems extremely reluctant to have any contact with her former rival on the ice. When a USA Today reporter asked her recently if she’d spoken to Harding, Kerrigan replied, “Never. No. For what?”

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