The Working-Class Heroes of Figure Skating

Please tell me you’ve already read Sarah Marshall’s Believer essay about Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan. Okay I’m glad we are all on the same page.

It’s been 20 years since the “whack heard ’round the world.” I was nine years old at the time and have vague memories of all of it — I can still see Tonya’s smudgy cry-face as she skates towards the judges to complain about her broken laces– but reading this essay lends the whole thing fascinating context. The most striking part to me were all the class issues at play, and how unaware of this narrative thread I was as a child:

But if Nancy got to be a working-class hero worthy of a Horatio Alger story, Tonya had to be pressed into service as her counterpart, and as one of America’s most reviled demographics: white trash. In the weeks and months following the scandal, a new variety of sports journalism emerged that could perhaps most aptly be called the Tonya-bash. It was an easy form to learn, about as simple as a Mad Lib, but far more enjoyable, and almost impossible to avoid…Tonya owned her first rifle, a .22, when she was still in kindergarten, and had moved thirteen times by fifth grade. She dropped out of high school at fifteen. (In fact, she later obtained a GED.) She drank beer and played pool and smoked even though she had asthma. She raced cars at Portland International Raceway, and was involved in a much-hyped traffic altercation in 1992, when she brandished a Wiffle-ball bat at another driver (reported, inevitably, as a Louisville Slugger). She skated to songs like Tone Lōc’s “Wild Thing” and LaTour’s “People Are Still Having Sex.” She was ordered to change her free-skate costume at the 1994 Nationals because the judges deemed it too risqué. Her sister was a prostitute. Her father was largely unemployed, as was her mother, as was her ex-husband. No matter how journalists added up the details, however, they all seemed to reveal the same motive: Tonya was going nowhere fast, and she had decided to take Nancy with her.

Reading this is kind of like when you grow up and are like oh yeah of course you didn’t send our dog to a farm. Like, oh that is what was going on. Or part of it, anyway.

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9 Comments / Post A Comment

Fig. 1 (#632)

I know! I am roughly the same age as you and this piece was terrific. Like when you get older and realize Uncle So and so was an alcoholic and they weren’t talking about how much coffee he likes to drink.

gyip (#4,192)

The director’s comment here (http://www.cosmopolitan.com/celebrity/news/price-of-gold-nancy-kerrigan-tonya-harding) that she’s “on the fence” about whether Tanya Harding deserved to have her life “ruined” is kind of …. awful.

HelloTheFuture (#5,275)

At 12, I was old enough to recognize Tonya Harding as “white trash” (you know, like those people on Cops or in Gone With The Wind) but would have never thought of Nancy as “working class.” She got to take ice skating lessons!

bluebears (#5,769)

@HelloTheFuture But so did Tonya Harding.

Nibbler (#5,331)

That article made me sad. For Tonya, and for all female athletes who just want to be the best at their sport, and then find that they also have to fit into some narrowly-defined box for the sake of public consumption and a good media narrative.

sherlock (#3,599)

I’m just a tad too young to have been aware of Tonya Harding – my first figure skating memory is Surya Bonaly doing the backflip at the 1998 Olympics. But what really struck me about the piece is how unusual it is that someone with either a working class or poor background would ever have been able to become a competitive figure skater. I have a feeling that would be very, very unlikely today given how expensive the sport is, and how intensely you need to invest in coaching at a very early age to even have a shot at competing at that level.

I skated for about 5 or 6 years when I was younger – my parents begrudgingly paid for lessons, practice time, and nice skates because I begged them, but doing competitions was out of the question. Honestly, even the skating they did pay for was beyond their means, and I feel really guilty about that in retrospect.

AitchBee (#3,001)

@sherlock Oh my GOD that BACKFLIP.

Daisy (#1,822)

@sherlock That was exactly my takeaway from it. I work with a lot of dancers, which seems pretty similar to figure skating, where you really need to start training as a little kid and the financial commitment from parents seems enormous.

jquick (#3,730)

I’m older and remember all this. They forgot to add that Tonya lived in a trailer, or does that go without saying? Never viewed Nancy as working class. At the time she was viewed as the snobby girl boys asked out, who would turn them down. And becuz of that attitude she had, people weren’t as upset over the wacking as you may have expected or remembered.

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