How Tonya, Nancy helped their sport


Twenty years ago this month, a man named Shane Stant attempted to boost Tonya Harding's Olympic hopes by whacking rival Nancy Kerrigan's right knee with a metal baton during the 1994 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Detroit.

Kerrigan clutched her knee and famously cried, "Why me?" Detroit police and the FBI launched an investigation to answer that question, while Kerrigan and Harding both went to the Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway … followed closely by Connie Chung, the National Enquirer and the rest of the world's media.

Before the saga ended, Stant, associate Shawn Eckhardt and Harding's former husband, Jeff Gillooly, would be imprisoned for the attack. Harding would plead guilty to obstructing the investigation, be fined $160,000 and be banned from skating. The scandal would become so notorious that it would inspire a novel, an opera, a parody in a "Seinfeld" episode, lyrics in a Weird Al Yankovic song and even a 2007 campaign speech reference by President Barack Obama.

The attack was sordid and despicable and reprehensible to the spirit of sport … and absolutely terrific for figure skating.

When Kerrigan and Harding finally met in the women's short program at Lillehammer, the showdown became the highest-rated sporting event in the United States and the third-highest for any TV programming (see infographic below). Money soon flowed into the sport as networks capitalized on its popularity by airing made-for-TV competitions such as "Ice Wars," "Skates of Gold" and the "Rock 'n' Roll Skating Championships." National touring shows "Champions on Ice" and "Stars on Ice" sold out arenas throughout the year while reportedly paying the skaters up to $15,000 a night.

Silver medalist Elvis Stojko remembers even skating on a beach in California for one show called "Too Hot to Skate."

"They put ice on the beach, and it stayed for part of the day at least, and we skated out there," he said. "In the evening, we had a rink on a pier. It was sold out, and it was crazy."

How popular was the sport then? There were fantasy skating leagues.

"Figure skating became the super sport," longtime coach Frank Carroll said. "Everyone wanted to watch it. They had made-up shows on television. They had competitions. All the people who turned professional had work. Michelle Kwan rode the crest of that and made millions and millions of dollars a year for just skating, and that lasted for 10 years, her whole life in the sport."

All of this also brought more young skaters into the sport. "Everyone wanted to do it," Carroll said. "Everyone wanted to be Michelle Kwan."

One of those aspiring young skaters was Sarah Hughes, who grew up to beat Kwan for the gold medal at the 2002 Olympics. Hughes says all the touring shows helped by allowing her to frequently see the world's skaters display their talent and techniques.

"It brought a lot more skating right in front of my face live," Hughes said. "It was very inspirational, and it was aspirational. I would think, 'Maybe one day I can do what they're doing.'"

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