The new Margot Robbie bio picture tells the story of one of the most controversial and dramatic incidents in both Olympic and figure skating history. We are talking about Tonya Harding and the time in January 1994 when her ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, hired a hitman to club rival Nancy Kerrigan in the knee with a police baton in order to take her out of the U.S. Women’s Championships.
The film does a great job in bringing to life that considerably dramatic and unhinged period of time, neatly wrapped in some great dark comedy. The filmmakers chose to focus more on the destructive, personal relationships that Tonya Harding had with the likes of her mother, ex-husband and bodyguard, who all contributed in some way to the set of events which led to Nancy Kerrigan.
However, what viewers can appreciate more is the subtle but important war that Tonya Harding had been battling her whole career that also contributed to the attack. The war between Harding and the Media.
Before both Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan entered the public eye, figure skating was one of the most popular sports in the world and grew even more thanks to a figure skating competitor called Sonja Henie, who dominated the sport post-World War II.
Sonja changed the sport forever when she broke with tradition and started wearing short knee-length skirts during her routines instead of the traditional bulky and warm attire. She also adopted a new style of skating, she introduced more fluid and unlaboured movements with an overall elegance. This became very popular among the judges and the crowds, soon becoming the norm. Figure skating turned into a sport of show and style.
From the very beginning, the real Nancy Kerrigan was built to be one of the greats and this can be credited not just to her skating but her character, making her especially adored by the media. Both figure skating magazines, fashion magazines, TV stations and respected newspapers all became infatuated with Nancy Kerrigan.
She was a traditional girl from a good family, Time magazine wrote in 1994:
‘Kerrigan has drawn on the unconditional love of two parents, two devoted older brothers and an extended family of aunts, uncles and cousins, who turn out at competitions to cheer her on’.
This American family image also pleased the judges back in the early 1990s, for whatever reason. ‘She was raised as a lady. We all notice that’, an Olympic judge told sportswriter Christine Brennan.
Kerrigan’s good looks were also a huge factor in her success, Time magazine once noted that she was ‘Blessed with long, slender limbs and a natural elegance’. Kerrigan shot to superstardom, she was named one of PEOPLE magazine’s ’50 Most Beautiful People in the World’. She was also endorsed commercially, getting sponsorship deals and having custom-made outfits designed by high-end fashion designers such as Vera Wang.
The New York Times gave Kerrigan even more credit for the way she dressed outside of the ice rink, reporting that ‘Nancy Kerrigan is very publicly adorned with a Seiko watch’. As a result, Kerrigan rose in popularity and became the centre of attention within the sport.
Tonya vs. America
In the trailer for I, Tonya, Tonya (Margot Robbie) skates towards the judges and yells at them, demanding why she didn’t get the scores she deserves. One judge tells her ‘we also judge on presentation’. If you wanted to know all about the conflict between Tonya Harding and the likes of the media and judges, the word ‘presentation’ could sum it up.
Figure skating was considered primarily a show sport in the late 1980s and early 1990s, watched mostly by women and young girls. Tonya Harding wasn’t the role model that the world of figure skating wanted, she wasn’t seen as a suitable role model. In fact, she was the exact opposite of Nancy Kerrigan.
Tonya Harding was a great skater, but critics could never really get on her side, even after she made a name for herself. She was a strong, fierce and competent skater but she lacked the preferred artistic techniques set by her predecessors.
The film also shows Tonya having a fight with the judges, although in real life she never told the judges, in public, to ‘suck my d**k!’ In the documentary, The Price of Gold Harding does recall a time when a judge threatened to kick her out of a competition for wearing a pink costume she had sewn herself, which is somewhat included in the film. The truth was that Tonya couldn’t afford a better costume at the time, in contrast to Nancy Kerrigan’s collection of designer outfits.
Maybe the worst came from the press, who were particularly biased and ridiculed Tonya’s ‘sweatshirt and jeans’ lifestyle. The New York Times said she was ‘… Crown Minus the Glitz‘ adding that:
‘Harding seems to be an anomaly, a baby-faced, 20-year-old skater either unfamiliar with or unready for what lies beyond the moment’.
Compared to how they treated Nancy Kerrigan, this is almost humorous but like the film in a very dark way.
The New York Times continued to bash Tonya over her personal life and after winning the women‘s title in the national figure skating championships, the press ridiculed her for not attending a party thrown by an Olympic manager inside a hotel ballroom. Instead, Tonya opted to hang out with friends at a bar playing 8-ball. The newspaper wrote that this decision ‘might say more about her than the way she won it’. The press also had a thrill ride reporting on her troubled personal life with her husband.
Thanks to the internet, we can now look back and see how the media can misrepresent sports celebrities and in this case, how it can demonise the working classes and favour more photogenic ideals of femininity. We can learn from history and how Tonya Harding was treated and, as journalists and members of the media, we can choose to be better.