Tonya Harding

In the end it wasn’t difficult to find a silver lining (no pun intended) to—what shall we call it?—the Tonya Harding fiasco? controversy? scandal? “Controversy” gives her too much credit, as if her position were defensible. “Scandal” seems too harsh—at least until she’s found guilty of conspiracy in the attack on Nancy Kerrigan. “Fiasco” comes close to suggesting the whole media-circus atmosphere, but makes the actual core incident seem comic, the way “brouhaha” would. In the short term, I opt for the Tonya Harding affair, because it involves her in events without actually implicating her, and because there’s a sexual connotation to the word that is fully intended.

What the Tonya Harding affair was about, above all, was sex and class—those two great obsessions of U.S. culture. That’s why one callous tabloid-TV producer referred to it as “the mother of all trailer-park stories.” The class issues were muddy in real life—both Harding and Kerrigan came from working-class families—but on the surface it was the story of the Cinderella who had accepted the fairy tale and pursued it until it proved to be her ticket out, and the Lady Macbeth so embittered by the delusions of her punctured dream that she was determined to achieve a righteous self-destruction. Sex itself was not an issue per se—except in extraneous material like Harding’s striptease video, sold to the TV tabs by her ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly—but sex roles and stereotypes were. One piece on television described the two as the prim girl that men want to marry and the one-of-the-boys they just want to screw. The issue was made all the more turbulent by figure skating’s apparent bias toward “womanly” qualities—grace, composure, fluidity, and—above all—femininity. That allowed Harding to depict herself, and to be depicted, as an individualist outsider underdog—that most favored of U.S. sports heroes—when really all she was was an athlete of meager talents with an unhealthy obsession to reach the top.

Now that the issues are on the table, let’s step aside for a moment to say the Harding affair will probably come to occupy a pivotal position in U.S. sports. It already has changed the way we look at female athletes—for the better. The 17th Winter Olympic Games, in Lillehammer, Norway, were where women claimed their place as equals in the U.S. sporting arena. That’s somewhat funny, after women were the only ones to bring gold medals home from the 1992 games in Albertville, France. (The Winter Olympics, usually held every four years, were pushed up to two years this time so they could hereafter be staggered with the Summer Games.) In Lillehammer, however, the women’s events in general were not only as dramatic as but more dramatic than the men’s. And the Harding affair demonstrated, beyond all doubt, that women can be as driven to succeed as any man—if not more so.

There is probably no woman in sports who is further from Harding—in what she is, what she has achieved, and what she represents—than Bonnie Blair, and their stories are in no way related, except that they both funneled through Lillehammer. Yet I think we look at Blair differently now than we did at past Olympics, differently than we would have had the Harding affair never taken place. In winning the 500- and 1,000-meter speed-skating races—giving her five career gold medals and a bronze, earned over three sets of games—Blair proved herself to be the greatest female sprint skater of all time and one of the greatest U.S. Olympians. Harding’s depths cast Blair’s achievements in relief. Here was an athlete who, at 29, had been at the top of her field for six years, who had excelled under the pressure of the Olympics (yes, we’ll get to Dan Jansen in a moment), whose personal-best time in the 1,500-meter race, in which she finished fourth, seemed to elate her even more than her gold-medal performances. What’s more, she had a certain intense grace about her—grace not in the feminine sense but in an athletic sense, the way we might say Ryne Sandberg turns a graceful double play. Those were graceful moments when Blair was ripping around a turn—eyes ahead, head up, back crouched, and her right leg somehow kicking out in the manner of a stylish dancer.

With all the attention the Harding affair focused on sex roles and stereotypes, I don’t think I’m the only one who found it humorous and almost pathetic when the media began to refer to Blair as “America’s sweetheart” and “America’s little sister”—the condescending titles traditionally bestowed on successful female Olympians. Let’s just say that she might be the greatest athlete the United States has ever sent to the Winter Games and leave it at that.

Jansen’s problems offered the most stirring moments of the Olympics, it’s true, but they also served as a touchstone for Blair. Jansen had been at the top of his field as long as Blair, but—beginning with his two spills in 1988, following the death of his sister—he had always found a way to muff the big ones. That story continued in 1992, and again in the 500-meter race—his specialty—at Lillehammer. With his excellent build and immaculate technique undercut by his hangdog expression, especially when that frustrating tic around the turns once again reared its head, Jansen was the embodiment of how the mind can take over even the most well-trained body and corrode all the ability in the world.

U.S. athletes frequently complain that the Olympics are blown out of proportion. They’re out there training every day of the year, competing in meets throughout the given season, yet the U.S. public only looks in on them once every four years. That, however, is as it should be. The intense worldwide scrutiny gives the Olympics an element of pressure shared by all great championships. Of course they’re different from other meets—just ask Jansen or Canadian figure-skating champion Kurt Browning. And it makes Blair all the more exceptional for being able to treat them as routine.

In Jansen’s final race, the 1,000 meters, that tic again surfaced; twice he almost slipped around the turns. Yet he skated through it, kept himself in rhythm, and won with what proved to be—slips or not—a world-record time.

CBS was running everything on tape delay, and in the same annoying manner I believe I wrote about two years ago. For every minute of an actual sporting event, there seemed to be two or three minutes of hints, peeks, glimpses, in the form of teasers saying this event or that was coming right up. (No place was this more annoying—or more entrancing—than in the hyped-up “Late Night” highlights program with the supremely smug Pat O’Brien.) What’s more, it was sometimes difficult to get home without finding out what one was going to see happen that night. I made it for Jansen, however, and of course it was an emotional moment. It was proof, once again, that an athlete’s greatest struggle is always—first and foremost—with him- or herself. That’s a struggle Tonya Harding lost long ago, and so she sought other ways to play out the battle.

Let’s make things clear: Harding should not have been allowed to skate in the Olympic Games. Injuring a competitor, off the field of competition, is an offense far worse than gambling in how it affects a sporting event. In throwing a game, an athlete betrays himself (let’s stick to one gender for brevity here) and the audience. In intentionally injuring an opponent, an athlete corrupts himself, betrays the audience, which is denied the opportunity to see the best possible sporting event, and, of course, harms another person. When an athlete discovers such a plot—whether he had a part or not, whether it was carried out in his name or not, whether after the fact or not—he is obligated to report it to the highest authority possible, just as in a gambling scandal. Remember, Buck Weaver was banned from baseball in the Black Sox scandal even though he didn’t take part and accepted no money, because he had knowledge of the plot and failed to reveal it.

Those Black Sox are instructive in another way, too. Many in high-minded circles—the New York Times editorial page, for instance—insisted that Harding had to skate until found guilty in a court of law. Ridiculous. Let me point out that the Black Sox were absolved of all charges in court—yet were banned for life. There wasn’t enough evidence to convict them—not in a Chicago court, anyway—but there was abundant evidence that would taint any game they later played in. Sports isn’t real life; sports is better than real life, while still being a part of real life. Sporting administrations are right to uphold a higher moral code than is found in everyday life, while the necessities of competition demand a swifter sense of justice. Getting down to particulars, a Butch Reynolds, banned for a bad urine test he maintains was a lab mistake, ought to be given every chance to prove his innocence—a chance denied him at great eventual cost to U.S. athletic bodies in a case that no doubt influenced the Harding affair. But when an athlete admits an offense of the magnitude of Harding’s, he or she should be dealt with harshly and immediately.

That said, of course, it turned out for the best that she skated. Had she not, she and her fans—both her trailer-park devotees and the slumming others who championed her because they hate sports in general or figure skating in particular—would have had her denied a sure gold medal. Anyone who saw her at the U.S. championships knew that with her clumsy style and slovenly technique she would be lucky to finish in the top five at Lillehammer, with a hope for a medal only if two or three women went down with, ahem, knee injuries. Turns out she finished eighth, behind Katarina Witt, the two-time gold medalist who returned this year with no real hope of earning a medal, just to compete—sweet justice, there.

“Clumsy,” “slovenly”: there are those who would say that these are loaded words and that Harding’s only great sin was that she skated like a man in a feminine sport. (Those were frequently the same people who demeaned Kerrigan’s elegant costumes while calling her horse-faced for her wide nostrils and prominent teeth; I heard those comments everywhere I went, I’m sure you did too.) Figure-skating judging is by nature subjective—sometimes cruelly so, as in ice dancing, where Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean were pushed from gold to bronze by what seemed an anti professional bias—but its criteria we can all agree on. Grace, technique, artistic expression: those are the same reasons we value a Sandberg over a Juan Samuel, even when both are putting up similar numbers at the plate. Grace is a quality of great athletes—both male and female. And I think in the end I enjoyed Kerrigan and Oksana Baiul because both suggested, in brief glimmers, awkwardness. Clearly neither had ever been what’s commonly considered a great athlete, yet through hard work and discipline both had somehow made their movements appear graceful—Kerrigan with her long lines and broad gestures, Baiul with her delicate arm movements and spins. In their swanlike grace, they suggested all the struggles any athlete goes through to master his or her craft.

Next to Jansen’s victory, the figure-skating final was as dramatic as any sporting event this year, just as advertised, although with one of the expected stars usurped. Here was Kerrigan, back from her battering six weeks before, and here was Baiul, skating on painkillers, the victim of a nasty crash on the ice in a practice session the day before: both courageous, both tough, both spinning their determination—macho quality that it is—into grace.

For the record, skating layman that I am, I favored Baiul, although by no larger a margin than she eventually won by (awarded the tiebreaker on artistic expression by the ninth judge to decide a 5-4 vote). It sort of bothered me that so many people—Kerrigan included—made fun of her crying upon her victory. Sportsmanship, I think, took the biggest beating in the Harding affair. It seems such an obsolete word now—and sexist to boot. An athlete doesn’t have to like not winning, but he or she ought to be satisfied with turning in a peak performance and accepting the rest. In the best candid moment of the games, Canadian figure skater Lloyd Eisler, the partner of Isabelle Brasseur, looked up at the judges’ scores and said, “I don’t give a rat’s ass.”

To me, Baiul’s tears weren’t endearing because they represented a traditional feminine response to winning—as at the end of, say, the Miss America Pageant. To me, they seemed normal for any great athlete experiencing elation, relief, pain, joy, hurt, and triumph all at once. Put Oksana Baiul alongside Michael Jordan on the occasion of his first championship and I think they compare very favorably.

While we’re at it, put Bonnie Blair up there as well. v