This essay by Sarah Marshall in the new issue of The Believer—about Tonya Harding, Nancy Kerrigan, the bizarre attack by a hit-man hired by Harding’s ex-husband against Kerrigan at the 1994 US Figure Skating Championships, the subsequent media frenzy and its peak, or deflation, at the 1994 Olympics—is so excellent.
Watching the Olympics that night, viewers witnessed not just the end of Tonya’s career but the extinction of a whole era of ladies’ figure skating. If Tonya was a T. Rex, lumbering out of her enclosure and bringing chaos to the night’s well-ordered spectacle of heavily regulated female strength, then Nancy was a velociraptor, hissing with stifled aggression as her turf was overrun by tiny, quick-blooded mammals. As Nancy warmed up with the final group, she found herself surrounded by teenagers: Tonya may have famously trained in a mall, but Nancy had to compete against girls who looked like they would have been more at home shopping in one. Nancy delivered a beautiful routine that night, elegant, nervy, and technically flawless. But it was also the skating of a grown woman, and she narrowly lost both the gold medal and the crowd’s favor to Oksana Baiul, the bubbly, crowd-pleasing sixteen-year-old orphan in pink marabou. However much the public had tried to situate Tonya and Nancy as enemies, they remained united, if only in their representation of the sport’s old guard, and of the last gasp of a period during which skaters could just possibly be seen as women and not as girls.
There are things you read and appreciate because they made you care about a thing you thought you wouldn’t care about, but then there are things you read about things you already care about that make you realize you had absolutely no idea about that thing you thought you cared about in the first place, and for me this is the latter.
I was nine when the Harding/Kerrigan stuff happened and a minor figure-skating nut, and it was sort of Baby’s First Media Scandal for me. So many of the images and the narrative elements are familiar, but blurrily so, and it’s weird to see it all flayed out in such detail—and galling, because the coverage was so deeply, viciously warped against Harding, in ways I couldn’t have sensed as a kid but that seem far too familiar now.
What also hit me was Marshall’s point that the 1994 Lillehammer games—which I watched, in complete rapt awe, as much of as my early EST bedtime allowed—were such a turning point for women’s figure skating, a pivot away from “women” and towards “girls.” I remember Harding and Kerrigan (and Katarina Witt and Kristi Yamaguchi, and Surya Bonaly who gets no mention here but, uh, BACKFLIPPING BLACK FRENCH LADY? HELLO? BEST?) all seemed like such grown-ups to me. Even Oksana Baiul—who was sixteen, and who Marshall positions as a harbinger of all the waifs to flood the rink in years to come—seemed very grown-up to me. When I thought about this years later I figured that was because they were teenagers and I was a kid and everyone over the age of 12 seemed to me like some kind of unfathomable adult being.
But as it turns out, they kind of were adults! Harding and Kerrigan were in their 20s, at least. Marshall’s dinosaur references above are perfect, an extension of the detail that Harding did her free skate to the theme from Jurassic Park, which I had somehow forgotten, though I remember so many other things about the games: I have not forgotten about the torch-bearing skiier or the fact that Dodge was a sponsor for NBC’s coverage and ads for the Neon were shown at every commercial break. I was quite set on a teal and purple one by the end of the games. Teal and purple—are there any more 1994-y colors? I don’t believe so. I remember watching the games with my best friend Alison, who was about to move with her family to Virginia; we made worry dolls from instructions we found in American Girl magazine, and probably ate pretzels and Sprite because that was Our Snack. I’m sure we had feelings about Nancy and Tonya and though I don’t remember them now, either, they were probably the same as everyone else’s.
Anyway, it’s a great essay, recommended even if you don’t give a lick about mid-90s competitive figure skating. (If you think you don’t care, I dare you to watch Oksana Baiul’s “Swan Lake” short program and not at least entertain the possibility of weeping.)