Tonya and Nancy scandal’s effect on skating

December 25, 2013 by  
Filed under Wind Energy Tips

Tonya and Nancy.

Mention those names to figure skating fans, or even to those with little interest in the sport, and there’s an immediate response of recognition.

“Ah, the whack on the knee.”

“Oh yeah, the ‘Why me? Why me?’ cries.”

“Sure, the scandal.”

Well, it will have been 20 years on Jan. 6 since Nancy Kerrigan was clubbed after practice in Detroit by a member of a bumbling goon squad hired by Tonya Harding’s ex-husband with the hope of eliminating his former wife’s top competition for the U.S. Olympic team. The assault led to a soap opera that practically created tabloid television journalism, taking what had for decades been a niche sport and putting it squarely into the media mainstream.

By the time a recovered Kerrigan and a besieged Harding reached Lillehammer, their saga was front-page news and can’t-miss TV.

“Mainstream media was constantly looking for the next juicy story, and they were insatiable and they were intrusive,” said Scott Hamilton, the 1984 Olympic champion who pretty much has been the voice of the sport since then. “What I saw and read was alarming. From the New York Times and Washington Post to the National Enquirer, World News and the other tabloids – every member of the media on all levels, no matter their affiliation – they were kind of equal for that moment in pursuing this story.

“It kind of shook me. This was a desperate appetite, a desperate nature. And it kind of dovetailed into the O.J. Simpson stuff later.”

Yet the attention figure skating would get from the scandal was a boon for the sport.

Often considered elitist because of its expense, and only something to watch whenever the Winter Olympics rolled around, skating entered an entirely different realm because of Tonya and Nancy.

That surge in popularity lasted for the rest of the 1990s.

“It really expanded skating so much to the point that it was unsustainable,” says Byron Allen, who produces the Stars On Ice tour as IMG Worldwide’s senior vice president. “What was there for the time was fabulous, and there was so much interest from all angles. Not only for the sport – it did expand the sport – but from the entertainment side, and the scandal side.

“People became household names rapidly with so much exposure … it developed the industry so quickly and so large. But it created unrealistic expectations.”

Suddenly, with the exception of Harding, who would be banned from the sport for life for her role in the attack, skaters were in demand. From the Olympic winners at Lillehammer such as Oksana Baiul, who edged Kerrigan for the gold, to past champions and legends, TV networks couldn’t get enough of skating.

Even in non-Olympic years, arenas wanted the two major tours – Stars On Ice and Champions On Ice – along with any other shows featuring folks who could jump, spin and twirl. Both tours were visiting cities across the United States and Canada, and heading off to Europe, Asia, and even to the non-skating continents.

Tom Collins, who owned Champions On Ice for three decades, said business “quadrupled when that incident happened. It put skating in the stratosphere; you couldn’t sell enough tickets.”

It was, by far, the most lucrative period for skaters in the sport’s history. Some of the biggest names were regularly pulling in seven figures.

With skating relegated back to the niche realm, the attention and money has dwindled. Champions On Ice is gone and Stars On Ice has shrunk its schedule.

“Clearly there was an explosion in the sport’s popularity and exposure, which was fun to be part of,” Kerrigan said.

“I look at where the sport is now and it is too bad that it has swung so far the other way. It tends to reinforce some people’s perception that what happened to me was good for skating, and that is just not right. Attacking an opponent for personal gain can never be seen as a good thing.”

Kerrigan said it would have been better if a well-organized pro circuit was created during the peak in the sport’s popularity.

Hamilton created Stars On Ice in part because he would have been unemployed without it after winning gold at Sarajevo in 1984. He saw the skyrocketing popularity and earning power for skaters following the Tonya-Nancy scandal, but he also saw right through it.

Hamilton knew the positive impact would be fleeting. The International Skating Union opted to invest money into keeping skaters in the Olympic-eligible competitions it controls. So Michelle Kwan, Irina Slutskaya and Todd Eldredge remained fixtures. That led to plenty of attention for the relatively few competitions, but at the expense of the tours and ice shows that traveled the globe.

“I think the main thing that happened was any time vast wealth comes into anything, it tends to change it,” he says. “It changes the image, the mission, what people’s roles are and what they should be doing.

“When it is all about competition, the rock star part of the sport no longer exists, and the scale tips so far the wrong way, you don’t have anything left to turn to.”


The ice show must go on – anywhere you can find a rink.

Even as Kerrigan and Harding were competing at the Lillehammer Olympics in 1994, with the figure skating scandal in full bloom, tour promoters and arena managers were making deals. And more deals.

“It was all the business we could handle, and we did, from 1994,” Collins said. “We went from doing mediocre business to doing multiple shows and putting out not just one show, but two. We couldn’t handle all the cities that wanted the show and wanted to see all these Olympics and world figure skating champions.”

Collins’s tour, and Hamilton’s Stars On Ice, featured the top skaters of the 1980s and ’90s. Fans’ appetites were whetted by the Tonya and Nancy soap opera. It didn’t matter to them that Harding was banned for life for her role in the attack on Kerrigan at the 1994 national championships. Nor that Kerrigan was only an occasional participant in the ice shows.

There were dozens of stars to sell, even though they were offshoots of the saga that once dominated the headlines.

“I remember there were definitely more eyeballs, people knew when we were on tours, that we were in town,” says Kwan, who, at 13, was an alternate for the Lillehammer Games. “It was like Lady Gaga or Madonna is performing. We were rock stars. I remember following Nancy around and she had to put on a wig and sunglasses; she was on every cover of every magazine.

“We had the sold-out shows for 100 shows. It was great for us; in some ways I think I benefited from the attention, the media and the coverage, and the popularity in our country and overseas,” said Kwan, who became a millionaire many times over before her 18th birthday. “Exposure? The sport definitely got the most it ever had in history.”

Kwan went on to win nine U.S. titles and five world championships, plus Olympic silver and bronze. Yet she was Champions On Ice’s opening act early on, an up-and-comer who was followed by a deep array of established stars.

Allen, who produces Stars On Ice, had a stable of famous skaters from Hamilton to Kristi Yamaguchi and Katarina Witt to Gordeeva and Grinkov to Torvill and Dean – Olympic champions all.

Yet Allen knew that the Tonya and Nancy story drove much of the interest.

“It was leading the news every day, and we were on tour, and we would get on a flight and then had reporters meeting us at the airport in the next city and telling us what the latest was,” Allen said.

“Media were interviewing Paul Wylie and Kristi, and Scott as the voice of skating on the Olympics, if you will, and the questions were about (Tonya and Nancy),” he said. “It was a crazy period of time where people tracked us down.”

The shows would tour for months on end in the United States, then go to Canada, Asia and Europe.

Years earlier, tours would wind up anywhere that an arena would open its doors: Abilene and McAllen, Texas; Erie, Pa.; Butte, Mont. But after Tonya and Nancy, 1988 Olympic champion Brian Boitano saw something he never imagined.

“After that Olympics,” he said, “we were doing domes on tour. DOMES!

“We did the Superdome in New Orleans with 40,000 people. I could not see the top person in the stadium. From the dressing room to the ice rink, we had to take golf carts because it was so far. We did the Carrier Dome (in Syracuse), the St. Pete Dome (in Florida). It was rock ’n roll, it was really cool for us, just a fantastic time to be in skating.”

But it wasn’t sustainable.

Figure skating didn’t have the foundation, with the International Skating Union that governs the Olympic-eligible competitions often at odds with the tours. As the bigger names got older or stopped performing to have families – or lost their attractiveness to fandom – not enough new ones emerged.

And the new ones who did, such as Tara Lipinski and Sarah Hughes, were gone before fans – particularly American ones – became invested in them.

“Actually, I think skating may be as popular or more so than it ever was, it is just that it has become global, and right now, the biggest stars are not American,” Kerrigan says. “This is no different than sports like tennis that have stars from all over the world. So we see skating (shows and competitions) doing well in Korea and Japan and Russia.

“But in the U.S., like everything else, skating is star-driven, and for the past few years we haven’t had a star who has caught the public’s imagination.”

And, as the years went on, the pull of the Tonya and Nancy saga lessened.

“Maybe we did saturate the market,” Boitano says, noting how he and Kwan toured through places such as Wichita every year. “After the fifth year, people were saying, ‘We have seen them already.’ ”

Boitano and others made a lot of money, but the sport didn’t establish itself for the long term.

“Everyone was trying to take in as much as they could,” he said. “It couldn’t last.”


“Skating with the Stars.”

“Battle of the Sexes on Ice.”

“Ice Wars.”

Those made-for-television shows – and plenty others – filled air time as figure skating became must-see-TV following the Tonya-Nancy scandal at the 1994 Olympics. Taking note of the incredible ratings from Lillehammer – the apex of the Harding and Kerrigan saga – the networks clamored for more.

With so few true competitions on the schedule – the Grand Prix series wasn’t even around then – TV folks started creating their own. Along with themed shows, there were mixtures of skating and live music, or skating and other sports (gymnastics, most notably).

It was a free-for-all, and some sort of figure skating could be found nearly every night.

“I was producing some of those shows,” Boitano said, “but I was also hired as one of the headliners for those. I believe in 1995, we had 13 prime-time network pro competitions. Wylie did all of them. I only did five of them; didn’t have the energy to do more.

“It was full time, nonstop. Networks were buying anything. I remember a rock ’n roll competition judged by Playboy bunnies.”

Along with so many programs came so much money. Skaters who had to scrounge to make ends meet in their developmental years became millionaires.

That was terrific for them, but it also led to some bad habits. Habits that couldn’t be hidden from the cameras.

“I think we killed the golden goose,” Collins said. “With the TV, skating was on too much, there was nothing new that (viewers) were seeing. The skaters were doing so much, the (tour) shows and then TV, they ran out of routines and costumes and they didn’t have the time to do new things.

“They got stuck in a rut.”

Yet TV’s appetite for skating programming was insatiable. That led to the likes of “Too Hot To Skate,” a pair of made-for-television extravaganzas that included competition on a rink outside of Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.

And the “Great Skate Debate,” in which CBS News imported anchors Harry Smith and Andrea Joyce for an event in Green Bay and then Chicago. Not exactly Packers vs. Bears.

Fox decided it wanted a series of rock “n roll shows. CBS lost the NFL and counter-programmed with “Ice Wars.”

“Word went out and ‘Ice Wars’ was rather successful, even on a Wednesday night,” said Rob Dustin, founder of Red Brick Entertainment. “It had Nancy and Oksana (Baiul, who edged Kerrigan for gold at Lillehammer), and Kurt Browning. A lot of household names.

“… Word went out we were looking for more figure skating programming. I don’t think anyone cared if it was competition or shows. Just get it on the air.”

CBS did. So did Fox. And ESPN. And various cable networks.

The ratings were solid. Advertisers and sponsors were happy. It was relatively inexpensive to produce and family oriented. Skaters were exhausted, but thrilled with the attention and the income.

“There was no sense during that point of going overboard,” Dustin says. “All these skaters felt all of a sudden that their talent was being appreciated, and on a larger scale than they reached before, except in the Olympics. I wouldn’t call these silly shows, either. You wanted to look at them as legitimate and we tried to do so, getting real skating aficionados as judges. We were all the same guys who covered the Olympics and were a part of figure skating.”

But the TV bonanza had become too much a part of figure skating. It led to overkill, and by the end of the 1990s, with the exception of Olympic-related events, the spotlight was dimming.

Now it’s a big deal if NBC airs a highlight package of a Grand Prix event.

“I think it comes down to story lines,” Dustin says. “Think about Nancy and Tonya and what unbelievable drama it was. Those story lines got old or went away.”

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