It’s certainly hard to feel sympathy for anyone who conspired to essentially order a hit out on another human being, but as I watched ESPN’s latest 30 for 30 series, ‘Price of Gold’ the other night, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was actually more than one victim in the whole Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan saga. Kerrigan quite literally received the brunt of the misfortune, but Harding’s might have been every bit as tragic.
Harding’s downfall was self-inflicted, yes, but it’s important to remember what drove Harding to become such a martyr. Insecurity about actually out-skating Kerrigan wasn’t one of them. Attempting to eliminate the competition certainly comes off that way, but remember, before Harding was a celebrity boxer, before she made a sex tape and before she became joke and a verb, Tonya Harding was one of the best goddamn athletes on the planet. She was the only U.S. women’s figure skater to land a triple axel in competition and had all the power, technique and speed to skate with the world’s best.
But there’s one thing Harding consistently lacked. Artistry.
That’s what figure skating likes to call it, but let’s call it for what it really is. Femininity. By traditional standards, Kerrigan had it in spades. Her long, flowing lines. Her grace and elegance. Her sweeping movements and picture-perfect frame. She was the embodiment of women’s figure skating. The kind of woman little girls see on a Wheaties box and say,
“I want to be like her.”
Harding was the polar opposite. She was brash and confident. Loud and unrefined. Her movements were explosive and powerful. Where Kerrigan seemed to glide along the ice, Harding attacked it. Her look was also unconventional. Where Kerrigan exuded class and fashion, Harding was undignified and haphazard. But still, she could skate the lights out.
But that’s just what got her (and if you watched Price of Gold, still has her) bitter about the whole thing. Skating isn’t just about skating. Harding felt like she was judged unfairly on things out of her control and to a degree, she was right. It’s the way skating was designed to work.
No other sport with the possible exception (and to a much lesser degree) of gymnastics, is judged on such a subjective scale. Michael Phelps didn’t have to end his races with a particular flourish or look a certain way to earn his gold medals. He just needed to be the fastest swimmer in the pool. Track and field sprinters don’t need an aesthetically pleasing form while running. Even downhill ski jumpers - who are scored partially on ‘degree of difficulty’ - still need to be more technically sound than magnetic in their personality.
But not figure skaters.
There’s an argument to be made that involves male figure skaters, but that too, goes out the window when you consider that figure skating is one of the only (and possibly the only) female-dominated sport in America. Instead, women’s figure skating was, and still is, designed to be a measure of not only athletic prowess, but how ladylike one is. In that area, Harding failed.
It’s also what makes her, to me anyway, such an interesting figure. Harding failed, but I liked that she never really tried that much to begin with. She refused to fit the conventional mold of what figure skating said a woman should be like. Where other skaters tried desperately to conform to the outdated (even in 1994) standards of femininity, Harding was a square peg in a round hole - callously bludgeoning her way through the mold with eye-popping athletic achievements and a hubris that made her more like Kenny Powers than Nancy Kerrigan.
But that’s not the type of personality that wins in women’s figure skating. Not in 1994 and not even now. It’s disappointing because you’d think that with ad campaigns like Dove’s ‘Real Beauty’ and the many others designed to challenge what a “real woman” is these days, figure skating would follow suit and judge women more on their accomplishments and less on their unkempt bangs and as Harding called them, her, “thunder thighs.”
It’s been 20 years since that fateful day that forever changed the course of Harding and Kerrigan’s future. Who knows what would have happened had Harding simply skated against Kerrigan straight up. Or better yet, what would happen if Tonya Harding came along today. Something tells me she’d be received better - if not by skating, but by the public in general - than she was in 1994. In a way, Harding was just ahead of her time. It’s a shame because given the thousands of retouched images and unrealistic magazine depictions of femininity still being shown today, little girls in 2014 might very well see Tonya Harding on a Wheaties box and say,
“I want to be like her”