Triple Axels and Double Standards - why people REALLY hate Tonya Harding

On June 30th, 1994, Tonya Harding was stripped of her 1994 Championship title & banned for life by the USFSA at a closed door hearing held at its headquarters in Colorado Springs. This was on top of the fines and community service imposed on Tonya by the criminal justice system as part of her plea bargain.

Some will argue that Tonya got off lightly. "She was lucky not to go to jail", they will say. And as it was well known that Tonya planned to resign from the USFSA and pursue a professional skating career after the Olympics anyway, the life ban may appear at first glance to be only a token penalty. So what's the fuss?

The truth is though, that the life ban imposed by the USFSA is in fact a much harsher penalty than jail would have been for Tonya. As a first offender with no prior convictions Tonya would have spent at most a year or so in a minimum security prison (we're not exactly talking Alcatraz here). The other conspirators are already free and are able to get on with their lives. Jeff Gillooly, for instance, the chief architect of the Kerrigan plot, served only six months after going on a "boot camp" program. Shawn Eckardt was released at the end of 1995. Even Shane Stant, the assailant who actually wielded the club against Nancy Kerrigan, is now free though still on probation. Is it fair that Tonya, who was at most peripherally involved in the plot, continues to serve a life sentence while those that actually planned and carried out the attack are now free?

The Skating Mafia

Similarly, the life ban is not as token as it seems. The USFSA is such an enormous octopus that its tentacles stretch far beyond its apparent jurisdiction of "amateur" skating. In fact, the ban not only stops Tonya skating in USFSA events, but also stops USFSA skaters skating with Tonya in other non-USFSA events that the USFSA sanctions, such as shows or open competitions. The USFSA is a monopoly - USFSA skaters can only skate in events the USFSA approves. If they skate in non-sanctioned events, they could risk losing their "eligible" status, including the chance to go to the Olympics. The USFSA is such a big player in US skating that this leaves Tonya with little opportunity to skate. Even if a USFSA skater wants to skate with Tonya they can't. And if a promoter wants Tonya to skate, they can't if there are USFSA skaters involved. It's an offer they have to refuse.

Triple Axels & Double Standards

It just might be possible to justify the USFSA's actions if other sportspeople who commit crimes were given similar treatment - that way you could at least say "well, it's tough, but it's fair - everybody else gets the same punishment". But they don't. One only has to look at other sportspeople who have been in trouble with the law or who have engaged in un-sporting conduct to see this is not the case. There's Daryl Strawberry, the baseball player repeatedly busted for drug use, Brian Blades (accused of shooting his cousin) and Latrell Sprewell, a basketball player who tried to strangle his coach recently. He was fired from his team, banned for a year, and yet there were TEN other NBA teams itching to sign him up if he got reinstated. Just recently an arbitator decided that even this penalty was "too harsh" and as a result Sprewell will now be back playing for his original team in July. Charles Barkley is constantly getting into bar fights. Baseball player Jose Canseco allegedly kicked the shit out of his wife while returning in a car from their child's birthday party. Reserve forward for Tonya's hometown team of the Portland Trailblazers, Gary Trent, beat up three people including his girlfriend, last year. His teammate Isaiah Rider was investigated last year for threatening airline employees (and recently did the same thing again on a flight out of Oakland). This is on top of three arrests the previous year. And there's Mike Tyson, a convicted rapist and ear-biter. Is he banned for life because of his disgraceful actions? The Heck he is! And of course we have to mention the ubiquitous OJ Simpson, who in a recent poll of most admired sportspeople came second to bottom out of 85 names. The one who did come bottom was - you guessed it - Tonya. And this is a man who was found liable in a court of law to have cold-bloodedly butchered two people. One could go on citing example after example of these losers, but the point is already well made.

Nor is bad behavior merely confined to other sports. Even within the skating world there's drunk drivers (Oksana Baiul and Rudy Galindo) and drug addicts (Christopher Bowman). Baiul doesn't even seem to be terribly sorry for her offense, trying to excuse it on the grounds that she's "Russian" (which is most bizarre considering she's actually Ukranian). And yet these people are welcomed back on the ice or in commentary booths with open arms. Is this fair? Is this right? Is this consistent? Or is it a double standard.

Some may argue that Olympic athletes should be held to a "higher standard" than the general hoipoloi. Scott Hamilton said something to this effect at the time. The Olympics, they argue, represent something pure and noble and merely obeying the law is not enough: athletes should adhere to a code of "sportsmanship" that Tonya violated when she failed to reveal her knowledge about Gillooly's role in the crime. Tonya should have therefore resigned from the team whether guilty or not of anything more serious. Instead, they argue, Tonya selfishly sued to stay on the team rather than doing the decent thing and falling on her sword for the common good.

Such a view may have had some credibility 20 years ago when the Olympics were largely a purely amateur affair. It may even have still had some validity in the 1980's when Hamilton went to the Olympics. Today, it is sadly out of date and rather naive. In the 1990's the Olympics are about one thing: money - and how to make lots of it. Thanks mainly to IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch what was once a sporting festival is now little more than a steroid-soaked money-grubbing marketing exercise designed to make as much money as possible for the IOC and its corporate cronies, a body that is riddled with corruption and sleaze itself. Why should Tonya be held to a higher standard than the IOC executive itself is? Why should she be pilloried for wanting her fair share of the cash from what is now merely a business transaction?

By far the loudest and most nauseatingly hypocritical condemnation of Tonya seems to come from those who benefitted the most from the whole Tonya/Nancy incident, i.e. the skating establishment and the media. These people haughtily condemn Tonya or refuse to skate with her whilst greedily gorging themselves on the torrent of money the scandal unleashed. Since 1994 there has been a huge increase in interest in skating on both a watching and participation level, most of it almost entirely due to the attention the scandal focused on the sport. Thousands of people who up until a few years ago wouldn't have known an Axel from a Zamboni now flock to skating rinks to both skate and watch ice shows. USFSA membership has skyrocketed. On US television skating is one of the most popular spectator sports as numerous made-for-TV skating specials like "Ice Wars", "Too Hot To Skate" and Fox's "Rock & Roll Skating" fill the screen. The 1994 Lillehammer Long Program face-off between Tonya & Nancy received the kind of ratings normally reserved for Superbowl games, despite being a tape-delayed broadcast. The coverage the scandal got was so intense that many reporters seemed almost embarrassed to admit to covering it and often pretended they were covering the coverage by other news crews rather than Tonya herself. And top level skaters and skating promotors have become rich off this newfound public interest - so much for the idea that crime doesn't pay.

Skating people will acknowledge this if pressed: journalist Christine Brennan acknowledges it, Coach Frank Carroll admits it, as does promotor and agent Michael Rosenberg. "There's a joke among skaters that Nancy and Tonya should get a percentage of our earnings," Jerod Swallow of the skating team of Punsalan & Swallow told the "Detroit News" in a recent article. Yet Tonya now lives in poverty in Vancouver, Washington, just north of Portland, and has had no chance to skate since Reno. Tonya has gone from being a skating superstar to a fairground freak, reduced to being the butt of third rate jokes about "club" sandwiches and a cheap way of filling up a few inches in the "Oregonian" on a slow news day.

The Real Reason People Hate Tonya

In light of the above, it may seem difficult to understand why Tonya Harding has been singled out for such harsh treatment, considering the ambiguous nature of the evidence against her and the inconsistent treatment of other sportspeople (including other skaters) who have become entangled in trouble with the law. Difficult, at least, unless one understands the true crime that Tonya is being punished for. And the fact is that this has little to do with her role in the Kerrigan attack, whatever that might have been.

Feminist writer Elizabeth Arveda Kissling explained it best in her article "Why Tonya Harding could never be America's Ice Princess" which delves into some detail about womens sports in general. As Kissling explains, many people still see athleticism as unfeminine. Female athletes therefore attempt to counteract this perceived lack of femininity by adopting what she terms an "apologetic" - in effect by showing an emphasized interest in traditional feminine activities in their private lives; e.g, by dressing in frilly dresses, wearing lots of makeup and talking about how much they like cooking, sewing, and raising kids. Figure skating, however, has this apologetic built right in. It's a sport where gracefulness counts and is indeed considered so feminine that male skaters constantly have to battle against being labeled as gay. Indeed, "Ladies" ice skating (as it is still officially called) is one of the few sports where to call a competitor "athletic" is actually considered derogatory. For a woman to make it in the skating "biz" involves more than toe loops and lutzes - it means conforming to an "ice princess" stereotype of womanhood that the rest of society junked about 30 years ago. The traditional "Ice Princess" stereotype as personified by Sonja Henie is that of a little girl, a stereotype to which Oksana Baiul is often compared. She bursts into tears at the drop of a hat, and in what other sport could a competitor get away with wearing a fluffy pink dress like Baiul did in her Lillehammer long program without being laughed at? This "ice princess" stereotype is ladies figure skating's inbuilt "apologetic" that Kissling refers to.

Tonya, however, made no attempt to conform to this "apologetic" either on or off the ice. Her off-ice past-times of shooting, pool playing, beer drinking and truck fixing were decidedly not traditionally feminine. After her win at the 1991 nationals Tonya skipped the winner's ball to play pool in the hotel saloon. On ice, her skating style was strong and athletic rather than graceful or elegant. While as Nancy's biggest desire was to settle down and start a family the only thing we ever heard about Tonya's family was how dysfunctional it was. Her mother has had either six or seven husbands depending on which source you consult. Tonya herself has been divorced twice and she's only 27. Her last marriage only lasted 100 days. Nor did her often home-designed costumes go down well in a sport where appearance often counts as much as skill on the ice. When Tonya did show femininity, it was the "wrong" sort of femininity. Her revealing costumes, "trampy" makeup and home-made porno videos presented what some saw as a slutty image that got up the nose of the skating establishment.

It's not just that Tonya is working class; there have been many other skaters who have come from poor backgrounds: Oksana Baiul was orphaned at an early age and grew up in the Ukraine, which like most of the former Soviet bloc countries is a shambles (not to mention radioactive). 1996 US Men's champion Rudy Galindo once described himself as "gay Mexican trailer trash" and was actually living in a trailer up until his Nationals win. And of course, Nancy Kerrigan herself came from a blue-collar background (though hardly as poor as Tonya's) and has also commented on feeling the cold snobbishness of the skating establishment at the elite Boston Skating Club. But Tonya is different: she isn't just working class, she's PROUDLY working class and makes no attempt to apologize for it or to leave that world behind. For instance, when Baiul came into money, she bought a Mercedes. Galindo bought a BMW. Tonya, on the other hand, bought another truck. While Baiul drinks exotic drinks like Long Island Iced Teas (and by all accounts far too many of them), Tonya drinks beer. And while Kerrigan married her agent, Tonya dates construction workers and storemen. Nancy Kerrigan, although also working class, came from higher up the social scale than Tonya and has been successfully "pygmalioned" by her coaches and husband/agent Jerry Solomon into something socially acceptable. But not even Professor 'enry 'iggins himself could do the same to Tonya!

This is why Tonya is so disliked amongst figure skating fans. But it also explains why Tonya is so hated by the general public as well. It was perhaps best stated by Randall Sullivan in his 1994 "Rolling Stone" article on Tonya when he said:

"Nearer to the heart of the matter was America's profound denial of (and subterranean fascination with) social class. A cultural apparatus that had substituted race for class was engaged in a willful indifference to the millions of fair-skinned Americans who work for a living that is meager at best. Tonya Harding was the skeleton in the country's closet."

At the end of the day Tonya Harding is despised because she is an uncomfortable reminder of the big class divisions that exist in America today. That racial inequality exists in the United States is widely acknowledged, but the class divisions within those racial divisions are not. Every day, millions of poor white people like Tonya toil in menial jobs to scrape together a living yet get almost no sympathy. Conservatives hate them because they are poor; liberals hate them because they are poor AND white, and being both is isn't politically correct. Poor whites are as a result the last group that it's still socially acceptable to dump on - people who would never use words like "nigger" or "faggot" find it perfectly okay to mock poor whites and call them "rednecks" or "white trash". "Amos and Andy" may have disappeared from the TV but "The Beverly Hillbillies" is still in reruns.

The inbuilt apologetic aspect of ladies figure skating also helps, however, to explain why the crime generated so much public interest in the first place. Although Nancy Kerrigan was not like Oksana Baiul she still conformed to the apologetic in her own way. With her tall, toothy good looks she was seen by many as the epitome of what most Americans would like their daughter to grow up to be. The fact that it occurred at the rink while Nancy was in her "role" of an ice princess rather than as a "civilian", and was organized by people within the world of skating itself, meant the crime became redolent with symbolism. Had Nancy Kerrigan been whacked on the knee and relieved of her wallet by a mugger on the way home from the rink there would have been little interest outside the skating community. But the fact that something as graceful and seemingly wholesome as ladies figure skating was now contaminated with the same violence and thuggery as the rest of the community was seen as symbolizing a new and lurid low in the decline of Western civilization. Cap this off with the fact the victim was a national champion as well to add an extra patriotic edge to the scene and the result was that when Nancy got whacked, this was more than just an assault on a person, it was a symbolic assault on America itself and its most cherished values. It was like as if someone had, say, stolen the Declaration of Independence and burnt it. It was an act of treason almost, and people were furious and wanted a villain to blame.

But not just any villain would do. It followed that such a dastardly crime demands a dastardly villain. Whoever did this, they reasoned, must be the most vile revolting piece of scum in existence. The fact is that if we love our heroes to be larger than life, we like our villains likewise. We like them to be Hitlers, Pol Pots, Jeffrey Darmers and Saddam Husseins. We want real life villains to be like comic-book villains, especially in the case of attacks on our heroes. When a major public figure is the victim of a crime or misfortune, we assume that only a dastardly supercriminal or evil government agency could pull it off. For the villain to be ordinary would remind us that our heroes themselves are only mere mortals. Many people can't accept that JFK was murdered by a lone gunman, or that Princess Di was killed by something as boring as a drinking driver or that Elvis died from drugs and overeating. No, they've got to be the victims of some massive international conspiracy involving cigarette smoking men, grassy knolls, white Fiat Uno's and little gray aliens from Area 51. That's if they're REALLY dead at all, of course. The simple fact is that guys like Lee Harvey Oswald and Henri Paul are just too plain BORING to make it in the bad guy stakes. And ditto for Stant, Smith and Gillooly (while as Eckardt was certainly larger than life, he was just too silly to really be considered evil - he was just comic relief). Hence the search for some more elaborate and sinister explanation - there had to be more behind it, people reasoned. There had to be a more interesting villain than just those four men.

Because Tonya refused to conform to the skating establishment's middle class notions of good taste and femininity it became easy to cast her in the role. With her proletarian background and tacky Wedding Night Video Tonya was too tempting a target to be ignored. She wasn't an ice princess, so people "reasoned" she must be an ice bitch instead. Tonya became reduced to the level of a two dimensional comic-book level villainess, just as Nancy became reduced to a cardboard cartoon goody-goody. It was, of course, an image that Jerry Solomon was quick to exploit and which earned Nancy a lot of money, but which ultimately backfired on her with the Disney World incident when it turned out Nancy was merely human and not as perfect as they made her out to be. Even the costumes the two skaters wore reinforced the dichotomy; Nancy in her pure, virgin white dress, Tonya in a purple number with a plunging neckline that symbolized the "scarlet woman" people saw her as.

Tonya is despised because she is "politically incorrect" rather than for any serious evidence of a role in planning the Nancy Kerrigan attack. Figure skaters and fans hate her because she refuses to play their mind games and adopt the "feminine apologetic" the sport still expects of "lady" skaters. The rest of the public hates her because she's poor and white - a group most Americans would rather forget exists. She's been pilloried in a modern day witch trial that would make the ones of the puritan era look like a model of good jurisprudence by a public geeked up on self-righteous bile after a comic-book villain to blame. It would be foolish to pretend that she has behaved perfectly over the Kerrigan scandal. But her admitted and proven crimes do not merit such a cruel penalty as a permanent exclusion from the sport that she has spent almost her entire lifetime practising to achieve in. This is especially so when we don't know why Tonya behaved as she did and that she may well have acted out of fear for her own safety (as she claimed on "Geraldo" in July 1996 and on "Breaking The Ice" in February) rather than merely a selfish attempt to remain on the Olympic team. It is especially so when one sees the blatant double standard that is applied in respect of other (usually male) sporting figures who transgress the law or the rules of sportsmanlike conduct. And it is especially so when one sees the skating community raking in the money from the crime they so heartily despise.

It's worth noting that just a few miles from Tonya's home town of Portland is a town called Salem.

It's kind of ironic isn't it?

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