The most bizarre, no-way-that-can-be-true sports story of my lifetime has to be a tie for first, and that’s not even counting O.J. Simpson’s life story.
Start with that day in baseball spring training in 1973 when New York Yankees pitchers Fritz Peterson and Mike Kekich held a news conference to announce that they had traded families. Wives, children, dogs, everything.
Then make room atop the surreal scale for Tonya Harding’s 1994 involvement in the goon-attack on fellow figure skater Nancy Kerrigan just before the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway.
The Great Wife Swap has faded to trivia. Peterson and his 2.0 remain married, Kekich and his soon broke up and now nobody cares.
The Harding-Kerrigan scandal, though, is back in our faces 24 years later, a month from the start of the next Winter Olympics, thanks to the new movie “I, Tonya,” and an accompanying promotional tour that has sought to rehab Harding’s well-earned reputation as despicable by rebranding her as somehow the victim in all this.
So there’s Tonya alongside Margot Robbie, who plays her in the film, on the red carpet as the movie world-premiered to swooning reviews in Toronto. And there’s Tonya at the Golden Globes on Sunday night as actress Allison Janney collects a trophy for portraying Harding’s mother in the film. And now “Truth and Lies: The Tonya Harding Story,” a two-hour documentary, debuts Thursday at 9 p.m. on ABC.
Nancy Kerrigan, victim, had nothing to do with any of this, by the way.
Tonya Harding, unrepentant perpetrator, gets to be the star again at age 47 as she pathetically and hopelessly attempts to rejigger history.
I could only shake my head, half in disgust and half in dumbfounded amusement, as I listened to Janney praise Harding for the bravery to have her story told — on a night when the entire theme of the Golden Globes was to support the Time’s Up movement against sexual and other abuse of women. So the kind of abuse in which you intentionally injure a woman by capping her right knee with a blunt object is OK?
Harding admitted to ABC that she knew of the plan to attack her skating rival but did nothing to stop it. It was like low-rent cosa nostra as Harding’s ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly (now going by Jeff Stone), hired someone to attack Kerrigan six weeks before both women were to skate for the gold medal. (Fate denied the perfect ending as Kerrigan recovered to win only silver, but at least the shamed Harding finished in eighth place).
Gillooly called Harding the instigator. It was the note in her handwriting that the FBI found in a Dumpster detailing Kerrigan’s practice schedule and location. She would plead guilty to a felony charge of hindering prosecution, be sentenced to three years probation and be expelled from the U.S. Figure Skating Association, her career properly over.
She has since dabbled in a short-lived boxing career and as a color commentator on the TV show “World’s Dumbest,” which it should be noted was not autobiographical.
Harding hardly was the first to belie the very idea of “sportsmanship” by doing the opposite.
Richie Incognito, accused of using a racial slur in an NFL playoff game. A Cincinnati rec basketball team, booted from the league for having racist names on the backs of their uniforms. A Japanese kayaker, banned from the Olympics for spiking a rival’s drink with steroids so he would fail a doping test. All of that stuff was just in the past week. Betrayals of sportsmanship surely predated Rosie Ruiz taking a shortcut to cheat-win the 1980 Boston Marathon.
There was something about Harding-Kerrigan, though. So orchestrated. So heinous. Such a bludgeoning of the concept of fair competition. Imagine the Tennessee Titans hired someone to injure Tom Brady’s right elbow prior to Saturday’s playoff game. That’s what Harding and her small band of miscreants did in 1994 to shame American figure skating and meddle with the signature sport of the Winter Olympics.
Now, 24 years later, Tonya Harding re-emerges like a dormant canker sore claiming she had an abusive mother and husband, and that explains or mitigates everything. Nope. No sale. It does not explain or justify her villainy in trying to shatter a rival’s dreams in pursuit of her own.
One of the few truths she has uttered was when Harding once said, “I knew this would be with me for the rest of my life.”
It was the burden of her own creation, and there is no statute of limitations on her shame.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Greg Cote is a columnist for the Miami Herald.
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