January 6, 2014, - 5:15 pm
Nancy Kerrigan should be thanking her lucky stars that Tonya Harding and company whacked her on the knee and made her a star and multi-millionaire. It’s the best thing that ever happened to her (or any figure skater).
Remember the farcical, hard to believe ice skating plot in which female figure skater Nancy Kerrigan was hit on the knee by associates of Tonya Harding at the Ice Skating Nationals in Detroit? Hard to believe it happened TWENTY YEARS AGO today.
When I had my Detroit-based CBS Radio show, we used to use Nancy Kerrigan crying, “WHY? WHY?” as a sound effect when ever I asked the question “why” to callers. And that’s the best this scandal did for me. But for ice skating, it was a boon. The sport is no longer popular, but for a short moment, it was the most popular sport, bar pro football, on TV. The Olympic women’s figure skating competition starring Tonya and Nancy was the FIFTH most watched television event EVER, beaten only by the “MASH” finale, two Superbowls, a “Roots” episode, and the “Who Shot J.R.?” episode of “Dallas.”
On January 6, 1994, Kerrigan–who was a nobody–was whacked on the knee by Harding’s ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, and her oversized bodyguard/Pillsbury Dough Boy Shawn Eckhardt, and a third associate, Shane Stant. While Kerrigan–to this day–feigns being upset over the whole thing, she should thank her lucky stars she was assaulted. It made her a household name and garnered her gazillions in endorsements. Yup, she went to Disneyland. And she even got pick-up attempts from guys like then quarterback Troy Aikman. The media gave us every detail of Kerrigan’s expensive, intricately sewn and beaded, lace Very Wang costumes (and put Wang on the map beyond the uber-wealthy), while Tonya’s attire was scoffed at as chintzy. But for the incident, Kerrigan wouldn’t–to this day–be getting invited to speak at corporate gigs for tens of thousands of dollars per, and she wouldn’t have made millions on national ice skating tours, which, today, are largely passe.
For a New York minute, every girl suddenly wanted to take up skating. Now, it’s not so popular in our Facebook/social media culture, where exercise and athletics take a back seat to selfies and YouTube videos.
Tonya Harding, while it was kinda clear she knew about the criminal attack, had her gigs, too . . . though they were low-class, gawker-style celebrity boxing and reality show fare. I remember that my parents–my mom, especially–rooted for her at the Olympics (she came in a distant eighth, after her laces broke). They felt she was the underdog who was pilloried in the media unfairly because she was seen as the less glamorous, “redneck” skater. There was definitely piling on, and at that point, it hadn’t been proven whether or not Harding was in on the knee-whacking.
Both she and Kerrigan came from working class backgrounds, but Kerrigan’s family appeared to spoil and sacrifice everything for her, as many Olympic families do, to the detriment of the other kids. Kerrigan’s brother recently got out of jail after an altercation with Kerrigan’s dad resulted in his heart attack and death. You can’t help but wonder what he’d have been like or if that would have happened had he not grown up in a working-class family that focused its attention and resources on an Olympic dreams of just one of the kids.
In truth, Kerrigan was just as tacky–if not more so–than Harding, but she got a pass because she was better looking. (That’s show biz.) Kerrigan, most recently, had a gig as a Winter Olympics correspondent on “Entertainment Tonight” just after her dad died, in which she essentially said, “Hey, my dad just died. Now look at me have fun sliding down this cool snow slide. Wheeee.” And don’t forget, she married her much older then-sports-agent, Jerry Solomon, with whom she was having an affair while he was married. Tonya Harding wasn’t so bad, after all. Was she? Distasteful, maybe. But the two were water that rose to the same not-so-high level.
In the 20 years since, much has changed. No one broadcast of any sport (or anything else)–except maybe a Superbowl–can garner the attention of that many eye balls. These chicks were the original reality show. And it couldn’t have been scripted better.
Lower Olympic ratings since then and far decreased interest in ice skating are evidence of that.
Still, we’ll always have that sound effect, “WHY? WHY? WHY?”
And if you think I was tacky for using it, you ain’t got a sense of humor to speak of.
Tags: Detroit, figure skating, Ice Skating Nationals 1994, January 6 1994, Jeff Gillooly, Jerry Solomon, Nancy Kerrigan, Shane Stant, Shawn Eckhardt, Tonya and Nancy, Tonya Harding, Troy Aikman, Winter Olympics 1994, women's figure skating, women's ice skating