Once a dainty sport, figure skating became a reality show drawing millions of fans, dollars.
By Associated Press
Published January 7, 2004
ATLANTA - Ten years ago, a bumbling misfit took a whack at Nancy Kerrigan's knee as she walked off the practice ice.
Figure skating hasn't been the same since.
With one swing of a retractable police baton, the dainty sport that was the showpiece of the Winter Olympics morphed into television's first reality show. Tonya and Nancy: the Ultimate Bad Girl vs. the Ice Princess. The public couldn't get enough of it. Television ratings went through the roof. Ice shows sold out. Skaters raked in millions, and they no longer needed an Olympic gold medal to cash in. On any Sunday in the past 10 years, odds are some skating show was on TV. Not just legitimate competitions, either. Made-for-TV programs like Ice Wars or Too Hot to Skate.
"The Nancy Kerrigan-Tonya Harding drama ... was a bad thing, but also it was a good thing because people paid attention to figure skating," Michelle Kwan said Tuesday. "And I think people stuck around to enjoy the sport and forgot about what had happened to capture their attention."
Oh, but we'll never really forget. "Skating was big, it was around. But this incident, Kerrigan-Harding, the whack was heard around the world," said Tom Collins, creator of the Champions on Ice tour that features most of the Olympic medalists.
"It was an international event ... and it changed skating like nothing ever has."
Harding, still the only U.S. woman to land a triple axel in competition, was the 1991 national champion and a medals contender at the 1994 Olympics. But the tough-talking, cigarette-smoking girl from the wrong side of the tracks never was adored the way Dorothy Hamill or Kristi Yamaguchi were. Other female skaters carried makeup bags; Harding toted a bag of tools.
Kerrigan, on the other hand, personified the image of figure skating. A lanky, dark-haired beauty from the East Coast, she had a ballerina's grace and an athlete's strength. She won the bronze medal at the 1992 Olympics and was the pick to be the golden girl in 1994.
Then came Jan. 6, 1994.
In hopes of clearing Harding's way to gold and glory, Harding's live-in ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, hired a hitman to attack Kerrigan. Kerrigan was leaving the practice rink at Cobo Hall in Detroit when Shane Stant whacked her on the right knee with a baton. She collapsed to the ground screaming her now-famous quote, "Why me?" and footage of her crying and clutching her knee was shown across the globe.
Harding always has denied knowledge of the attack, but most suspect she knew something. When she and Kerrigan went to Lillehammer, it set up a showdown bigger than "The Thrilla in Manila."
"Nancy takes pride in the fact that when that incident took place, she was bound and determined to compete in the Olympics," said Jerry Solomon, Kerrigan's husband and agent. "As long as she could walk, she was not going to let anything get in the way of pursuing that goal and showing the world that she was going to overcome that situation.
"If she had not skated, the ratings would have not been what they were, the interest would not have continued."
Practices in Norway drew more media attention than most Olympic events. The short program - aka, The Showdown - and the free skate drew the fourth- and sixth-highest ratings of any TV shows up to that point.
Not just for 1994. Ever.
"A lot of people saw it that hadn't thought of skating before," said Chuck Foster, president of U.S. Figure Skating. "It brought in, I think, a whole new group of people."
Harding collapsed in soap-opera fashion, sobbing to judges when her skate lace came untied during the free skate, and wound up eighth. Kerrigan took the silver behind Oksana Baiul.
But the drama had captivated the country. Membership in skating clubs boomed. There were skating dolls and books. When CBS lost its NFL deal, it filled much of the time with skating.
"I look back upon the past 10 years as the Golden Age of figure skating," Foster said.
These days, Kerrigan is thriving, Harding is surviving.
Kerrigan married Solomon in 1995, and they have a son, Matthew, 7. She still skates some, but has branched into music, television specials and movies. She'll be inducted into U.S. Figure Skating's Hall of Fame on Friday night.
As for Harding, U.S. Figure Skating banned her permanently. She has had several brushes with the law, an aborted comeback and three husbands. Her sport now is boxing, and she has a match Jan. 24 in Boise, Idaho.