Tonya-Nancy At 20
In his expansive career in the sports industry, Harvey Schiller served as the commissioner of the Southeastern Conference, the chairman of the Yankees/Nets and the president of Turner Sports, Inc.
And over the years, he’s overseen his share of controversy and turmoil.
But nothing compares to the time he spent as the executive director of the United States Olympic Committee 20 years ago when the organization was at the center of the one of the biggest sports storms of all: Tonya-Nancy.
|Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding on the ice together during a practice session at the Lillehammer 1994 Olympic Winter Games on Feb. 17, 1994 in Lillehammer, Norway.
Reality TV before such a concept was a big thing, the figure skating scandal began Jan. 6, 1994, when Nancy Kerrigan was whacked on the knee after practice at the national championships in Detroit. Her cries of “Why me?” were heard around the world.
From the moment Kerrigan was attacked through the Olympic women’s competition in Lillehammer, Norway, when Tonya Harding’s skate lace broke, the Tonya-Nancy melodrama played out in living rooms around the globe.
“I was in Colorado Springs when I got a call about that whack on the knee,” Schiller said in a recent telephone interview. “It was amazing how much attention this whole thing got, not just the amount of national attention but international attention. We had everyone from ‘Saturday Night Live’ doing things on this to news people calling.
“There’s no one single thing that I remember from that but I just remember the scandal as a whole. It was huge.”
The women’s short program from Lillehammer had the sixth-highest rating in U.S. television history (48.5) and was the third largest of all time for a sporting event, placing behind Super Bowl XVI and Super Bowl XVII.
Tonya-Nancy was such a rivalry that it has even resulted in rival documentaries … 20 years after the fact. ESPN and NBC both produced TV shows about the saga. ESPN’s version, titled “The Price of Gold,” is set to air Jan. 16. NBC’s documentary, narrated by Mary Carillo, will be broadcast in February. Both women interviewed with NBC, although only Harding talked with the ESPN crew.
Now consider how much attention was surrounding figure skating back in 1994. One of the biggest obstacles the USOC faced in Lillehammer was getting some semblance of control over the media, which was absolutely insatiable when it came to tracking the latest information surrounding the scandal.
“No one in Norway wanted to have this as a spectacle,” Schiller said.
But in the end, it became just that.
Mike Moran, who was the USOC’s top press officer at the time, laughed when he looks back at that time. He had even traveled to Detroit before it was discovered anyone close to Harding was involved because skating’s national governing body (then called the U.S. Figure Skating Association) had asked him to help with Harding’s image issues. She had been known as a cigarette-smoking, pool-playing athlete and that was not the image traditionally kept by America’s top figure skaters.
“I remember sitting in a room talking to her about how cleaning up her act might help with things, things like quitting smoking, and I remember her just looking at me and nodding her head,” Moran said. “I just have to laugh now at what she was thinking while I was saying those kinds of things.”
Of course, Harding ended up having much larger issues to overcome than even Moran could imagine. And what started as a whack on the knee ended up as a hurricane of media demands and pressures.
“It was absolutely the most bizarre yet the most rewarding period I experienced in my entire time with the USOC,” Moran said. “I loved the intensity and the stress of it.”
These days, Moran estimates he gives about 20 speeches a year and undoubtedly the subject of Tonya-Nancy “comes up constantly.”
“It’s a subject that resonates among audiences still,” he said. “It was just 24-7 back then.”
The USOC was inundated with such an abundance of mail, faxes and phone calls that Moran said the organization had to bring in volunteers to handle it all. And keep in mind that this occurred long before Facebook and Twitter existed. Cell phones were just in their infancy.
“Radio stations were calling me and my staff at all hours,” Moran said. “Sometimes, they would call and my staff would not even know they were on the air.”
“I can’t imagine what it would be like if this were to have happened today with social media,” Moran added. “We would’ve been overwhelmed. Our website would have crashed. It would’ve been outrageous.”
Here’s the Tonya-Nancy story in a nutshell: On Jan. 6, 1994, Shane Stant used a baton to injure Kerrigan near her right knee, forcing her to withdraw from the national championships. At first it was thought that Kerrigan was injured by outsiders, but later it was discovered that Stant was connected with Harding’s husband at the time, Jeff Gillooly, and Harding’s bodyguard, Shawn Eckhardt. With Kerrigan out, Harding went on to win the national title (an honor later stripped from her as well as from the record books.)
Kerrigan recovered in time to compete in Lillehammer, alongside Harding, and lost the gold medal to Ukraine’s Oksana Baiul in a 5-4 split of the judges in the free skate. Harding finished eighth.
Throughout the Winter Games, the sordid tale of jealousy, plotting and mishaps overwhelmed the public’s imagination. The appetite for news from both the Kerrigan and Harding camps was so strong that Moran said nearly 1,600 reporters crammed into a press conference to hear Harding in Norway. Later in Norway, when Kerrigan and Harding practiced on the same session for the first time since the incident, about 600 reporters again packed in shoulder to shoulder to watch.
“It got to be silly,” Moran said. “I remember (former USOC press officer) Bob Condron had to find out what Tonya said to her coach during the practice. He came back and said, ‘Tonya told her coach it was extremely chilly in the arena.’ That was news.”
“I think people were fearful that there would be a fight or something,” Schiller said. “In the end, it really was a non-event.”
The day of that practice was the same day speedskater Dan Jansen pulled off one of the most iconic Olympic moments by winning a gold medal in the 1,000-meter event, his last attempt for an elusive Olympic medal. For an athlete who had so painfully fallen short of the ultimate prize in three previous Winter Games, it was a remarkable achievement, yet most American reporters were focused on Tonya-Nancy. Moran recalled informing the members of the media in the practice rink about Jansen’s achievement.
The biggest issue for the USOC was whether it would allow Harding to compete in Lillehammer. Harding filed a lawsuit against the USOC for $20 million, and it was that insurmountable legal pressure that allowed her to compete in Norway.
“That lawsuit was hanging over our heads,” Moran said.
In his first Olympic experience with the USOC at the 1980 Winter Games in Lake Placid, N.Y., Moran was caught in the throes of the “Miracle on Ice” feel-good hockey story, and he thought that was a big media experience. But in 1994, he realized Tonya-Nancy was so much bigger.
|Mike Moran reads a statement to the media at the Lillehammer 1994 Olympic Winter Games in February 1994.|
It was impossible for the USOC to escape the glare of the spotlight. At one point during the Games, Schiller and Moran decided they would read a statement crafted by lawyers to the media. The plan was to read the statement and leave without answering questions.
“Harvey went out a side door but I got trapped by the stairs,” Moran said. “I still have a photo of me surrounded by a sea of reporters and for about 90 minutes, I took questions from reporters. It ended when Christine Brennan (then of The Washington Post, now with USA Today) asked about what I thought it would be like when Tonya and Nancy were brushing their teeth next to each other in the Olympic Village.
“It became silly.”
Schiller, who recently was named the president of USA Team Handball, said one of the biggest myths of the scandal was that the USOC was influenced by CBS, the U.S. television rights-holder in Lillehammer, to have Harding on the ice in the Winter Games. Schiller said he had dinner with one of the top CBS executives and the next day rumors were flying that they had concocted a plan as to how Harding would compete.
“That is absolutely not true,” Schiller said.
One incident that Schiller said is true is came during the free skate portion of the competition in Lillehammer. That was when Harding came off the ice because her skate lace had broken moments before she was scheduled to perform her long program. Schiller said he was in the area behind the ice when Harding came off the ice to have her lace repaired. While the lace issue was being resolved, Schiller said, “I saw her light up a cigarette. True story.”
In the years after Lillehammer, figure skating enjoyed a boom in popularity. Today, Kerrigan continues to be involved in some skating shows. She is married to her agent, Jerry Solomon, and they have three children together. Harding, meanwhile, got involved in boxing and wrestling. According to a recent report in USA Today, she has remarried and has a child.
Twenty years later, both women continue to be linked.
“Back then, the press just wanted more and more,” Schiller said.
Today, it seems media’s appetite continues to be strong.
Amy Rosewater is a freelance writer and editor for TeamUSA.org. A former sports reporter for The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, she has covered two Olympic Games and two Olympic Winter Games. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and USA Today.