Every four years, at this time of year, we seem to get visions of sugar plums or ice skaters (or something) dancing in our heads, and I’m reminded of how enjoyable the Olympics can be… athletes coming together for fierce but friendly competition, regardless of nation, ethnicity, etc.
I think of so many who’ve gone before… Apolo Ohno, Franz Klammer, and Kristi Yamaguchi, to name a few…
… and to those we have our eyes on this February… Nathan Chen, Chloe Kim, and the “Shib Sibs,” Alex and Maia Shibutani.
I think, too, of Tonya Harding.
With the new movie “I, Tonya” undoubtedly, intentionally timed for its recent cinematic release, we are reminded of the disturbing 1994 event…
Prior to Olympic hopefuls Harding and Nancy Kerrigan descending upon Lillehammer, Norway for the XVII Olympic Winter Games, Kerrigan was intentionally clubbed an inch above the knee during practice by a man associated with Harding. The man was attempting to break Kerrigan’s leg in order to prevent her from competing in the games.
Harding was then hounded by the media during all public events at and leading up to the Olympics. CBS, in fact, notoriously assigned Connie Chung to follow the skater’s every move in Lillehammer. There, Kerrigan would physically recover and go on to finish second — Harding eighth. Two and a half weeks later, Harding pled guilty to conspiring to hinder the prosecution of the attackers; she also received a lifetime ban from the U.S. Figure Skating Association.
Tonya Harding became one of the most hated sports figures in America.
“I, Tonya” chronicles this account. It also shares more — about the abuse she says she received from both her mother and first husband… about her “white trash” reputation… and about her fluid vulgar mouth, for example (a representation Harding denies). Harding — now Mrs. Tonya Price — is said to be pleased with the film.
As I read reviews and subsequent interviews with Harding, I was reminded of a few details.
First, the FBI found that the attacker had been hired by Shawn Eckardt, a friend of Jeff Gillooly’s. Jeff Gillooly was Ms. Harding’s ex-husband at the time.
Second, Harding’s guilty plea acknowledged that she knew who was responsible for the attack but only after it occurred. She then did not report it immediately.
In other words, even though the prosecution believed Harding was guilty of far more than her plea encompassed, Harding became hated for both what she did and didn’t do. The media mocked her — again, for what she did and didn’t do. The media encouraged us to hate her, even though the courts did not find her guilty of encouraging, planning, nor executing the attack.
Taffy Brodesser-Akner recently did an excellent interview with Harding for the New York Times Magazine. Harding claimed that no one had ever sat down with her before and listened to her side of the story. She believes the media in particular had only lied, tricked, and attacked her previously. In response to Harding discussing the media’s abuse, Brodesser-Akner writes:
“I told her about the essays I’d read about how we should have been kinder and protected her back then. She doesn’t want to hear it. What do we know about her? We never asked…
She doesn’t need our protection now, thank you very much. She needed it back then. Where were our think pieces then? ‘You all disrespected me and it hurt. I’m a human being and it hurt my heart.’”
And so it made me wonder…
According to Brodesser-Akner’s perspective, there are all sorts of contradictions in Harding’s account. But sitting with Harding, asking good questions, listening to her, trying to understand what influenced Harding’s behavior, and being willing to acknowledge that so much of what the public believes is inaccurate, Brodesser-Akner found herself having compassion instead of hate for the former Olympian; she had compassion on Harding, even though there is no denial that Harding did do something bad.
Where have we allowed that to happen to us? … where have we justified hatred because we are no longer willing to listen to another’s perspective? … where have we justified hatred, not realizing some details of our perspective may be wrong?