Figure Skating’s Trail of Broken Dreams

I Tonya movie still, broken skate
I, Tonya
courtesy of Entertainment Weekly

The Olympics start in nine days, but this is not–strictly speaking–a post about the Olympics. This is a reflection prompted by seeing the movie, I Tonya, which cleverly insinuated itself into movie screens early enough to put itself in Oscar contention for 2017 but late enough to be seen right before the start of the Pyeongchang Games. The mockumentary-style film is worth seeing as a drama even if you’re not a skate fan. It also reveals the quirks in skate judging that result in odd results, perhaps to Harding, but to so many more that Olympic skate results are practically a conveyor belt of unfair outcomes.

Bashing Someone’s Hopes

Margot Robbie is terrific as Tonya Harding*, the powerful but feisty skater who won the U.S. Nationals but wanted more. Her manipulative and abusive husband launched a plot to scare her competition and his cretinous cohorts improvised with a crowbar to Nancy Kerrigan’s knee. Harding became a national joke and an international disgrace. I thought the film clearly showed Harding’s culpability in covering up the plot after the fact, lying to the FBI, and suing to keep her Olympic spot.

But afterward I heard some say that they thought the movie showed Harding was robbed, that she should have won a medal, shouldn’t have been pilloried by the press, and deserved more. Harding’s interview with the New York Times this month suggests she still thinks she was mistreated. The film–assuming its accuracy–does make one thing clear: when you are abused by your loved ones, as Harding was by her mother and husband, you come to feel that the world is against you and that you bear no responsibility for whatever happens.

However, Harding was guilty. She was not guilty of bashing Kerrigan personally in the knee, of hiring the people who did it, or of concocting the plot. But she was guilty of covering it up, and one thing more–poor sportsmanship. Which is a Thing. She took someone’s spot at Lillehammer. For all her dreams of working for years and sacrificing to get the Games, those were someone else’s dreams as well, and she cut those off when she sued to be allowed to skate.

And as far as being judged for something besides jumps, Harding can get in a long line behind others upset at the Olympics.  For a trip down skating memory lane, here is my Top Ten list of the biggest upsets–the travesties and the could-a-beens, the close calls and the if-onlies, where skaters saw years of work disappear in a missed jump or in a judge’s tap.

O, Canada! — Men’s Singles Figure Skating

1.  Brian Orser (Canada, 1984, 1988)  won back-to-back silvers in 1984 and 1988, the latter in a closely contested Battle of the Brians to American Brian Boitano. The two Brians had chased each other in world championships between Sarajevo and Calgary, and their Olympic battle was legendary. Both had the jumps and the style; both had planned eight triples, including the difficult triple axel. On the ice, Orser switched two jumps to doubles, and the slight edge in technical quality went to Boitano, who took the gold.

2. Kurt Browning (Canada, 1988, 1992, 1994) was the first men’s skater to land a quad at World’s in 1988, and he was best in the world between Calgary and Albertville. But he was one of those skaters that got Olympic jitters, falling uncharacteristically and often during his Olympic programs, prompting him to tell the world “I need a hug” in 1994.

Kurt Browning Olympic fall
Browning in 1992, Courtesy PDSochi

3. Elvis Stojko (Canada, 1994, 1998) was the first man to land a quad-triple combination, a feat designed to live up to Browning, who had bested him for years at the Canadian Nationals. Stojko was fast, strong, athletic, and fun to watch, but he also was chided by the judges for skating to rock’n’roll and non-classical music. In Lillehammer (same year as the Kerrigan-Harding Incident), he had a chance to win because the top three favorites all crashed in their short programs. Stojko’s long program, skated to Bruce Lee movie music, was controversial in its innovation. He brought the jumps, spins, and footwork, yet the judges awarded the medal to a Russian unknown with clumsy spins and virtually no footwork but who completed two more jumps. The Russian’s music was to The Barber of Seville and he skated in a frilly costume. If you think it was a travesty in February 1994 that Harding was considered too athletic, you should have watched the men’s program a few days earlier.

Travesty and Injury — Pairs Figure Skating

4.  Jamie Sale/ David Pelletier (Canada, 2002) Speaking of Canadians, the World Champion pairs skaters were perfect in their program in Salt Lake City, while their Russian rivals stumbled yet received higher marks. An investigation by the International Skating Union revealed that a French judge had been colluding and vote trading. Bloc voting and trading had been alleged and discovered for years, in one case at a championship where judges were toe tapping out their communicated collusion. In Salt Lake City, the French judge confessed to trading votes on pairs for ice dancing, and Sale/Pelletier were awarded a second gold along with the Russian pair. The gold medal-winning French ice dancers were not penalized.

Babilonia & Gardner figure skaters fall
No medal for Tai Babilonia & Randy Gardner, 1980

5. Tai Babilonia/ Randy Gardner (USA, 1980) never won a medal, but after rising to top in the Worlds in 1979, they were America’s best hope to break the Russian’s string of pairs wins. Russia’s Irina Rodnina had won back-to-back golds in 1972 and 1976, with two different partners, and was headed back to for a third in 1980. The showdown between the Russian and American pairs was the headline going into Lake Placid, but Gardner reaggravated an injury in practice and had to withdraw. No American pair has placed higher than silver since then. The gold did go to Rodnina/Zaitsev.

Breaking the Mold, Breaking the Rules — Ice Dancing

6. Jayne Torvil/Christopher Dean (Great Britain, 1984, 1994) Their Bolero shocked the world and judges in 1984 with its bold approach to ice dancing. Ahead of the Olympics, rumors abounded that the judges would downgrade the pair because their performance broke conventions. It started on the ice, it lasted a little past the time allotted, it flouted the notion of “changes in music” required for a long program. As it turned out, their performance was so electrifying, the judges awarded twelve perfect 6.0 and six 5.9s, still the highest score of all time. However, returning to skate again in Lillehammer, Torvil and Dean were downgraded for using a type of lift in their program which had been approved and did not technically break the rules. Apparently, there was just something about Lillehammer.

Torvil & Dean, Bolero, Sarajevo
Torvil & Dean, Bolero courtesy of the Daily Mail

Fields of Silver and Bronze — Ladies’ Singles Figure Skating

7. Yuna Kim (South Korean, 2010, 2014) was attempting to duplicate her gold medal from Vancouver in Sochi. She was upset by unknown Russian Adelina Sotnikova, who had been lagging in the short program, then received long program marks much higher than in any of her previous competitions. Allegations abounded that the new scoring system, designed to be more fair, was actually less transparent and still subject to manipulation. One of the judges who delivered the marks was a holdover from another vote-swapping scandal from 1988, and accusations flew that the marks for the Russian were partly due to Putin’s influence. Twenty years after Lillehammer, a new system, and nothing much changed.

8. Debi Thomas (USA, 1988) was the first African-American skater to hold a U.S. national title and to compete in the Olympics. As World Champion in 1986, she had high hopes going into Calgary to face the reigning gold medalist Katarina Witt. She skated well in the short program but fell on key jumps in the long program, and dropped from first place to third, winning a bronze medal. As is typical in America, this groundbreaking medal win was considered a disappointment, though she was inducted into the Figure Skating Hall of Fame for her achievements. She eventually finished a medical degree from Stanford, but a variety of issues and financial problems cropped up in her practice which forced her to leave medicine. Last seen on a 2015 episode of Fix My Life, she was living in a trailer, broke, twice divorced, and diagnosed as bipolar.  We all might find the movie I, Debi to be just as interesting. Without the knee-bashing.

9. Midori Ito (Japan, 1992) While Harding got credit for performing the first triple axel in America, Ito was the first woman to perform a triple axel in international competition and the first to land seven triple jumps. At Albertville in 1992, facing the more graceful but less athletic Kristy Yamaguchi of the U.S., Ito put the triple axel in her long program. She fell right out of the gate, but gutted out the rest of the performance and successfully landed a second triple axel–improvised–right near the end of the program. She earned a silver medal for the amazing performance, but ended up apologizing to her country for not winning and was treated, for a few years, as a disappointment.

Kwan skates to Fields of Gold
Kwan skates to Fields of Gold, Source: YouTube

10. Michelle Kwan (U.S., 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006). I’ll be open in my bias. Kwan is the best female figure skater of all time. After not skating in the Olympics in 1994 because of Tonya Harding, she still won the U.S. Nationals nine times and was the favorite going into Nagano 1998. But Tara Lipinski, a year younger and a better jumper, overtook her for the Olympic gold with one more jump. Competing again at Salt Lake in 2002, after winning four world championships, Kwan missed some of the planned jumps in her long program and was bested by relative unknown Sarah Huges, in another upset gold.

Kwan’s exhibition skate (she did win a bronze) to the song Fields of Gold is considered by many–including me–to be the perfect embodiment of skating, combining the artistry and grace with athleticism that makes figure skating a joy to watch. Kwan planned a return to Turino for one last try, but a nagging injury reoccurred just as she prepared to leave. She withdrew herself before going, opening up a spot for Emily Hughes, Sarah’s younger sister, to compete in the Olympics.

Because sportsmanship is a Thing.

At the end of the day, there is a long line of people who struggled to make it to the Games, only to fall short for one reason or another. Sometimes the judges unfairly award the reigning favorite despite a stumble (Victor Petrenko, 1992); sometimes they seem to prefer the young ingenue (Tara Lipinski, 1998 or Adelina Sotnikova, 2014). Sometimes the skater has everything going for them and lands just a little wrong, on the edge of a blade.

If you’re going to cry for Tonya Harding, there’s a long list of figure skaters you can cry for.



Today’s DailyPost word is Conveyor

*I do have two quibbles with the movie. Star Margot Robbie is 5’6″, tall and slender,  in contrast to Harding at 5’1″, whose visibly chubby but powerful thighs were made for triple axels. Robbie’s shape was much closer to Kerrigan’s (5’4″) and she did not look like someone the judges considered too chunky to skate. Also, Harding’s Lillehammer music was not generic 18th century classical as portrayed in the movie but Jurassic Park, a loud, clunky mishmash that served to emphasize what the judges did not like about Harding’s skating. As noted, judges always award more points–probably still do–to those who use traditional music.

3 Replies to “Figure Skating’s Trail of Broken Dreams”

  1. I read all of your posts. Every. single. one. This one is my favorite. I’m an Olympics junkie. For two weeks every two years, I live and breath the Olympics. I remember all of these that you profiled, every one heartbreaking…except for Tonya Harding. You’re absolutely right. She didn’t deserve to be there. She did lie to the FBI and sportsmanship IS a thing.

    1. Thank you so kindly! I worry with posts like this one I get a little worked up that I’m going on a bit much. I had to cut out the whole other part about skaters who took advantage of an opportunity to complete the Skate of Their Life (see Sarah Hughes, Paul Wylie, Zhang/Zhang)… Hmmm, I wonder if there’s enough material for Olympic book #2?

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