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.