Infamous Winter Olympians
Tonya Harding, U.S. figure skater, tied to attack on Nancy Kerrigan
The Olympic Games have always been a setting for inspirational acts of athleticism, where sacrifice and hard work are the norm. But there are a handful of Olympians who have set themselves apart from their fellow athletes through less traditional means. Tonya Harding is one of those rare individuals, a world-class American figure skater whose legacy is tied to an attack on one of her rivals before the 1994 Lillehammer Games.
Tonya Harding was among the best figure skaters in the world in the early ‘90s, and it’s easy to see why:
The Portland, Ore., native was the first woman to land a triple-axel in a short program, and it was her jumping prowess that helped her win gold at the 1991 U.S. national championships. However, her inability to land her jumps in competition over the next few years mirrored her finishes: 4th at the Albertville Games, 3rd at nationals in 1992, and 4th at nationals in 1993.
As she began to decline, another young American with world-class talent began to emerge: the taller, more graceful Nancy Kerrigan was a favourite to land a spot on the 1994 American Olympic team.
That did not sit well with those close to Harding – her ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, and her bodyguard, Shawn Eckhardt, conspired with two others to knock Kerrigan out of the picture:
Those images were re-played across the globe in the months leading up to the Lillehammer Games, as Harding denied allegations that she had something to do with the attack. Kerrigan, her chief rival, was left unable to perform; Harding skated to victory.
Kerrigan’s injury may have kept her out of nationals, but it didn’t keep her from being voted onto the Olympic team by the U.S. Figure Skating Association (USFSA). While she completed her comeback from the brutal attack by skating to Olympic silver, there was no medal for Harding, just more drama. Harding’s free skate performance in Lillehammer was pushed back due to equipment problems, and then was forced to re-start after her lace broke and her team had no real replacement for her:
In what would be her last competition representing her country, Harding placed 8th.
In March 1994, Harding pleaded guilty to conspiracy to hinder prosecution in the Kerrigan attack, a felony charge. She was placed on probation and fined. Soon after, the USFSA banned her for life and stripped of her ’94 national title after the organization determined Harding knew about the attack on Kerrigan before it happened.
Following her figure skating career, Harding didn’t exactly fade from the spotlight. The world continued to follow her exploits as she continued her incredible (and sometimes totally fabricated) life away from the rink.
That included a breaking a land speed record, numerous run-ins with law enforcement and a stint in pro-boxing after this made-for-TV event: