Alan Boomer’s “Sports Section” for March 4 offers some of the most intelligent commentary I’ve seen on the class and sex stereotyping that has dominated reporting on the Harding-Kerrigan affair and on women’s sports in general. But I think that Boomer fails to give Tonya Harding her due as an athlete. To call someone who qualified for the U.S. Olympic Team–and is a former national champion in her sport–“an athlete of meager talents” verges on absurdity and exposes the degree to which our sporting culture encourages an “unhealthy obsession” with, and only with, athletes who “reach the top.”
No, Harding’s talents are not as rarefied as are those of Nancy Kerrigan or Oksana Baiul, but if she can finish eighth in the world by displaying “clumsy style and slovenly technique,” what does this imply about the talents and accomplishments of all those who finished below her? Or of all those who didn’t even make it to the Olympics? Personally, I find Nancy Kerrigan’s “broad gestures” (as Boomer calls them) awkward and aesthetically displeasing, but I don’t think this defect makes her an athlete of “meager talents.” So why must we praise one athlete’s skills by denigrating those of another?
Yes, Ryne Sandberg is a more graceful fielder than is Juan Samuel, but need this then imply that Samuel is “clumsy” or “slovenly”? Boomer admits that these are loaded words, yet he chooses to use them. Why? Perhaps I’m leaning too hard on this point, but it seems to me that Boomer’s argument plays into the all-too-common notion in American culture that if you’re not number one, you’re shit. By this logic, all other basketball players are plodding lummoxes just because they can’t equal the gravity-defying grace of Michael Jordan. Can’t anyone be second best (or eighth best) and still be considered a great athlete?
But back to figure skating. I think that the general denigration of Tonya Harding’s talents has as much to do with her figure as with what she does with it. Boomer notes that while the judging criteria of figure skating are inflected by gender-specific notions of bodily decorum, both male and female athletes can exhibit grace. But when he extols Kerrigan for her “long lines” and Baiul for her “delicate arm movements,” and both for their “swanlike grace,” I hear these women being called graceful because they are tall and thin and have long arms, and Harding “slovenly” because she is short and stocky. Bonnie Blair has big thighs just like Tonya, but to Boomer, Blair has “a certain intense grace about her–grace not in the feminine sense but in an athletic sense.” But apparently, possessing that kind of grace is not good enough to get Tonya Harding called anything but a mediocre hack also-ran.
So whatever her moral failings and culpabilities may be, and whether or not she wanted to win “too much” (though Charles Barkley didn’t catch nearly as much flack for his championship boasts last year as Tonya did for hers), we ought to at least give Tonya Harding credit for being a world-class figure skater. And for turning in a fine performance at the Olympics. Her face was beaming just as much when she finished as was Nancy Kerrigan’s or Isabelle Brasseur’s. And with good reason. Most of us could only dream of finishing eighth at the Olympics.