The Lillehammer Games in 1994 evokes strong memories of the rivalry between two American figure skaters.
Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan both came from families who had to strive to find the money to support their child’s skating careers. Beyond that, though, the pair could barely have been more different. Harding was a stunningly talented skater who grew up against a background of turmoil and family upheaval. She liked to celebrate victories in flamboyant style.
Nancy Kerrigan, by contrast, seemed quiet, reserved, and even shy. She emerged on to the international scene after Harding, but it didn’t take long before the two women were rivals on both the national and global stage. The sponsors preferred Kerrigan, and she received the more lucrative endorsements, easing the cost of her travelling and training. Harding concluded that the only way she would ever get that level of support was by winning the Olympic title.
Her husband concocted a plan, which involved hiring someone to attack Kerrigan and injure her so she couldn’t compete in Lillehammer. The attack happened just before the US national championship – Kerrigan was assaulted and couldn’t take part; Harding won the title. And the American public became intrigued by what exactly could be going on within this sport.
The unseemly plan had worked to a point – but Kerrigan’s injury was not as bad as had been intended. She recovered and was awarded a place in the Olympic team, despite not going through the official qualifying process.
By now the police had already arrested Harding’s husband, and also questioned her for more than 10 hours. Remarkably, though, she remained determined to compete in the Games, and so arrived in Lillehammer, trailed by a massive amount of media coverage and speculation.
Kerrigan, too, found her every movement watched and scrutinised. But while she performed at a world-class level, Harding made a succession of errors and was never in contention for a medal.Kerrigan produced a stunning final dance that seemed certain to earn her a gold medal until Ukrainian Oksana Baiul conjured a routine that was every bit as good, and won the gold by the narrowest of margins. For Kerrigan, though, it was an extraordinary success in the face of unprecedented circumstances.