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20 years later: 'Whack Heard 'Round The World' still resonates for Nancy, Tonya

Posted by Obnoxious Boston Fan  January 16, 2014 05:59 AM

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"Nancy and Tonya."

It was the mother of every "intent to injure" penalty.

The last great sports scandal of the pre-internet age began 20 years ago this month when Nancy Kerrigan suffered the "Whack Heard 'Round The World" during the U.S. figure skating championships in Detroit, leading up to the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway.

The entire sordid episode is re-lived in the ESPN 30-for-30 film "The Price of Gold," which premieres Thursday 9 p.m. The film has received positive reviews and details the Jan. 6, 1994, attack and its fallout. It features interviews with Harding, several notable media types who covered the affair, coaches and law enforcement personnel.

This story had legs. It was a weeks-long train-wreck that captivated millions of us, bringing out the worst in sports, fans and media.

Kerrigan, who grew up in Stoneham, didn't participate in the ESPN project. She will tell her side of this saga in an NBC feature that will air during its Olympic coverage next month. She spoke to the UK Daily Mail about the attack last year, saying: "I'm just a mom now." In detailing the attack, she told the paper: "The doctors who treated me told me that if the bar had hit me one finger-width lower my knee cap would have been smashed and I might never have walked again."

Nancy Kerrigan.jpgThe police baton attack on Kerrigan's right knee was planned and executed by a gang of bumbling idiots. It was led by Harding's then-husband-and-now-ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly [now known as Jeff Stone] and his pals bodyguard Shawn Eckardt [who died in 1997], hitman Shane Stant and getaway driver Derrick B. Smith.

The video of Kerrigan wailing "Why? Why? Why?" went viral before videos were viral. This was pre-mass-internet, pre-social media, pre-You Tube. But thanks to the relatively new 24-hour cable news cycle, this story captivated the nation in a way that no other off-the-field sports story had done before.

How big a deal was this? Think the Tiger Woods-cheating scandal, with the addition of Phil Mickelson's wife taking a swing at Tiger with a 3-iron while he's hitting practice balls for the Masters.

Kerrigan, now 44, and Harding, now 43, both skated in Norway. Their first simultaneous workout in was televised on CBS. Once the competition began, Kerrigan performed brilliantly and won a silver medal, finishing second to Ukrainian teen-ager Oksana Baiul in typical controversial Olympic fashion.

"That damn French German judge."

Harding finished eighth. Kerrigan's image took several huge dents after the competition. The downfall began when she was caught on camera complaining about a delay before the medal ceremony.

During her well-compensated post-Olympic trip to Disney World, she was immortalized in another pre-internet viral video grousing about her celebratory parade.

She infamously told Mickey Mouse: "This is corny ... So dumb ... I hate it. This is the corniest thing I have ever done." Kerrigan and her camp contend the remarks were taken out of context, and that she was uncomfortable being honored for finishing second. But the PR damage was done.

Check out this 1994 clip from KNBC Los Angeles:

All that just for having a bad day at Disney World.

Kerrigan was much more stylish and graceful than Harding, in both her appearance and her skating. They shared blue-collar roots, but one was more "trailer trash" and the other "All-American girl next door." Kerrigan was never truly beloved or embraced by the American public. Rather she was first pitied and then pilloried, despite reaping millions in endorsement deals. Kerrigan became the textbook example of the "Build 'Em Up And Tear 'Em Down" mass media culture, which has now become a staple of Twitter, "Big Viral" sites and message boards everywhere.

Things turned out significantly worse for Harding. After the Olympics, she cut a deal with prosecutors. She told them she knew about the conspiracy to attack her rival after it occurred, but didn't tell authorities about it during their initial investigation. The attackers were sent to prison. The plea to "conspiracy to hinder prosecution" was enough to eventually earn Harding a life-time ban from the United States Figure Skating Association and the loss of her 1994 U.S. Championships title. She was an outcast on the pro-skating circuit and began a stretch of craziness that included the requisite wedding-night sex-tape, several run-ins with law enforcement and a brief pro boxing career.

Before "Nancy and Tonya," the Winter Olympics and figure skating had a limited appeal. The highlights of the Winter Games were usually downhill skiing and, once every 20 years or so, the U.S. hockey team making a Gold Medal run. The 1994 Games were the first Winter Olympiad that took place in an off-year from the Summer Games. Thanks to Nancy and Tonya, the Olympics received at the time what were the highest prime-time Olympic ratings in American TV history the night of the women's short program. The astronomical numbers came even though the skating events were aired several hours after they occurred.

Even after the soap opera that was "Nancy and Tonya" disappeared from the Olympic stage, America's TV torrid love-affair with Olympic figure skating grew. And it was women's Olympic figure skating that became the big "winner" in all this. A sport whose appeal was once limited to young girls and their grandmothers had become appointment television for the masses during the Olympics, receiving huge ratings.

Kerrigan married her manager Jerry Solomon in 1995 and they have three children together. He is also featured in the ESPN film. Kerrigan's family name was associated with a much graver crime in 2010 when her brother Mark was charged with involuntary manslaughter in the death of her father. Despite tearful pleas from Kerrigan and her family, he was eventually convicted of assault and sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison.

Harding, since re-married twice and the mother of a young son, is still playing the role of victim two decades later. While she still denies knowing about the plan for the attack before it happened, subsequent investigations and the facts demonstrate otherwise. "I lost everything," she tells ESPN's film-makers.

That seems like a just punishment given the sports gravity of her alleged crime. It remains beyond most logical and civil comprehension that one athlete would conspire to physically assault a rival in such a crude and brutal fashion. She also re-enforced every single negative stereotype about female athletics and female competitiveness.

By all accounts, Kerrigan has flourished and appears as elegant at 44 that she did at 24. Harding might be mistaken for someone in one of those "People of Wal-Mart" Facebook galleries. Harding's bitterness stills shines brighter than Olympic gold when it comes to her feelings about Kerrigan.

"She was the crybaby who didn't win the gold," Harding says in the film. "I've never said this before, but just shut up. Nobody wants to hear your whining."

20 years later, the same holds true for Tonya Harding.


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