In the first days of 1994, figure skater Nancy Kerrigan was the victim of an attack in which her knee was clubbed by a man who escaped the scene. Afterward, Kerrigan and her rival Tonya Harding were often lumped together. Harding, who went on to win the U.S. championships for which Kerrigan had been practicing at the time of the assault, had herself been a victim of a death threat a few months earlier, the press noted.
But the narrative of the vicious attack quickly separated the two. While her suffering made Kerrigan even more of a beloved figure, talk began to swirl that Harding was in fact implicated in the crime. In the weeks that followed, her bodyguard, her on-again-off-again husband and several other men were arrested in connection with the assault — and the veracity of that earlier threat against Harding was called into question, too.
While Harding implored her fans to believe that she was innocent — that she had known nothing of the plan to attack Kerrigan, even if she did know those responsible — many observers couldn’t help but think that it just made sense for Harding to be involved. After all, with the winter Olympics coming up, she was the one who stood to benefit competitively (and financially) from the removal of her rival.
But, as explored in the new biopic I, Tonya (out Friday, starring Margot Robbie as Harding and Allison Janney as her mother), logic may not have been the only factor at play in whether or not a person believed Harding’s side of the story. As TIME’s Jill Smolowe put it in the immediate aftermath of the news, Harding was “the bead of raw sweat in a field of dainty perspirers,” a “scrappy girl from the trailer parks.” Though her background gave her story an underdog aspect that was appealing to some fans, it also made it easier for others to suspect her, as the magazine explained:
Both Harding and Kerrigan competed at that year’s winter Olympics in Lillehammer. Kerrigan won silver and Harding came in eighth; Ukraine’s Oksana Baiul won gold. And in the important realm of endorsements, it was Kerrigan who came out ahead. Though her emotional story might have made some people sympathetic, Harding was out of favor. (Interestingly, TIME’s coverage of her case noted that the case made news right around the same time that juries were beginning to take more seriously the idea that suffering domestic violence and abuse could mitigate a person’s legal responsibility for otherwise criminal actions.)
Soon after, Harding pleaded guilty to “hindering investigators’ efforts to unravel the conspiracy,” as TIME put it, leaving officially unanswered the question of whether she had herself been part of that conspiracy. As part of the plea, she left the U.S. Figure Skating Association and withdrew from the upcoming World Championships. Shortly after, the U.S. Figure Skating Associated banned Harding from the group for life and stripped her of the national title.
Now, more than two decades later, Harding’s side of the story is getting a reappraisal.
“I think,” Margot Robbie has said of the woman whose life she inhabited for I, Tonya, “what made the biggest difference in the world was she didn’t have a support network around her.”
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