In Ice Skating's Biggest Story, The Media Were Poor Sports

Jan 22, 2014
Originally published on January 22, 2014 9:51 am

It's difficult to understand why certain athletes are harshly singled out by the media, but one of the most baffling examples has to be the criticism displayed toward figure skater Nancy Kerrigan after she was clubbed in the leg at a practice session just weeks before the 1994 Olympics.

The ex-husband of another member of the U.S. women's team, Tonya Harding, was convicted of arranging the attack. Harding herself was fined and banned from the sport.

As incredible as the physical attack on Kerrigan was, even more astounding was how little sympathy she got, and how Harding, who benefited from the assault, herself came to be something of a folk hero. The assault became the punchline of late-night TV comics, and Kerrigan, who'd barely missed the gold in Lillehammer, Norway, was dismissed as too plastic — a snooty ice princess — despite an incredibly gritty rehabilitation after the attack.

Click on the audio link above to hear Deford's take on this issue.

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Commentator Frank Deford is thinking of the run-up to the Olympics 20 years ago and the attack on figure skater Nancy Kerrigan, arranged by the ex-husband of a rival skater.

FRANK DEFORD: It's difficult to understand why certain athletes are harshly singled out by the media, but I've never been so baffled as by the criticism displayed toward Nancy Kerrigan. As incredible as the physical attack upon her was, even more astounding to me was how little sympathy was subsequently given her; how even Tonya Harding, who benefited from the assault, herself came to be something of a folk hero.

You probably recall the outline of the episode. On Jan. 6th, 1994, an assailant ran up to Kerrigan and clubbed her right knee. She collapsed, crying: Why? Why? But she then somehow managed to recover sufficiently. And when she skated in the short program in Lillehammer against her teammate Harding, the competition gained the sixth highest ratings in television history.

Harding bombed while Kerrigan barely missed the gold, losing to the new darling of the competition, Oksana Bauil of Ukraine, who won when all the former Iron Curtain judges voted for her. Kerrigan, who'd somehow managed an incredibly gritty rehabilitation in but seven weeks' time, was dismissed as too plastic.

Her case is what so often happens, classically, to pretty female athletes. Initially they're singled out for being both beautiful and competitive, but then the worm turns and they're criticized for the emphasis that others have placed on their good looks. Kerrigan, whose elegant beauty recalled Audrey Hepburn, was put down as a snooty ice princess when in fact, she was merely shy and came from a blue-collar family.

Comics made fun of Kerrigan's reaction to the assault - when she called out, why? why? - which was certainly the most natural of responses. David Letterman did a knee-slapping top 10 on her knee injury. In wrestling - yes, even wrestling - Hulk Hogan worked up what he called the Nancy Kerrigan angle, getting fake clubbed. Perhaps worse, Kerrigan was invariably lumped with her nasty rival; the Nancy-Tonya thing as if we would say the Kennedy-Oswald thing.

And at the end of the year, The Washington Post headlined: "Forget O.J. Kick Back, Relax and Relive Those Golden Days After Nancy Got Clubbed." Meanwhile, the gutless, out-of-shape Harding somehow became our new Rosie the Riveter - portrayed in Ms. magazine as heartbreaking. People magazine found her amongst the "25 Most Intriguing Personalities In The World"; Esquire embraced her as one of the "Women We Love."

A few years later, Nancy reluctantly agreed to let me interview her, but she was still wary of the vindictive press. Oh, yes, she said - only sighing, not whining now - I was a victim again.

At this Olympics, this anniversary, I hope Nancy Kerrigan gets the honor due her. She was courageous and she was mistreated.

INSKEEP: You hear Frank Deford right here on MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.