Smile when you’re winning

What was a sports enthusiast to do when his fix of weekend action had been confiscated from on high by the weather gods?  Well, there was still the TV – indoor athletics plus the usual low-level narcotics of darts and snooker. But my vape of choice was the current movie I, Tonya which enacts, with a smart script and an Oscar-nominated acting performance from Margot Robbie, the back story to one of the most extraordinary sports scandals of the twentieth century.

The record books for the 1994 Winter Olympics held in Lillehammer, Norway show that the gold medal for women’s individual figure-skating was won by a 16-year-old Ukrainian Oksana Baiul and the silver by 24-year-old American Nancy Kerrigan.  Back in eighth place was another American from Portland, Oregon, Tonya Harding.


The Ice Chalet, Lloyd Center, Portland – home rink for Tonya Harding
PICTURE: Andrew Parodi

Tonya was the most brilliant athlete and technician of her skating generation. She had won the US championships in 1991 and again in 1994, won silver in the world championships in 1991 and finished fourth in the 1992 Olympics. But, as the film graphically depicts, she was from the wrong side of the tracks, de-socialised by a pathologically domineering, not to say serially abusive mother, and marrying at the age of 19 a violent and manipulative husband Jeff Gillooly.  She played the bad girl in the rink herself, complaining of unfair marking by judges: she accused them of paying too little attention to her technical accomplishments and too much to her flawed media image.

In the build-up to the 1994 Games Nancy Kerrigan was assailed with a baton by a hit-man detailed to cripple her legs. The attack was bungled – the injuries inflicted proving not to be disabling for long and she was able to compete in Norway seven weeks later  – but its instigation was traced back to Jeff, by that stage divorced from Tonya but still embroiled in an on-off relationship with her.  He eventually admitted he had sought to assist his ex-wife’s prospects of winning gold by eliminating her rival. It has never been clear to what extent Tonya knew of the crude plot in advance, but she later pleaded guilty to a court charge of hindering the prosecution in the aftermath.  She avoided a jail sentence (which Jeff served) but was banned for life from the sport of competitive skating. 

On the basis of what is shown in the film, it seems legitimate to question how genuine that competition actually is.  There is no doubt of the extraordinary physical skill and daring of the performers, their precise athleticism taking the breath away; nor of the dedication of wannabe skating champions giving the best hours of their lives to hone their routines in the endeavour to make it to the top. But the competitive element seems to be undermined by the subjective nature of the judging process.

In the 1994 Games at least (I am ignorant of ways in which the sport may have evolved since) the contestants were marked out of 6 on two distinct aspects: first, on “required elements or technical merit”, second, on “presentation”.  You might think that the former could be totted up with some objectivity, while the latter seems largely subjective, and appears to include aspects of dress, demeanour (smiling a lot), being “attractive”. Actually, both are capable of, let us say, differing interpretations. In the real event there were among the nine judges both an American and a Ukrainian. And guess what? The Ukrainian consistently marked his own countrywoman Oksana higher for both elements than his American counterpart, and the American likewise for Nancy. In the end Oksana was awarded the gold medal on a 5-4 split of the judges, with the supervising Swedish referee Britta Lindgren not casting her vote but giving an interview afterwards justifying it: “When Oksana presents a program, it is really coming from the heart, the inside. To me, she’s an artist on the ice. Nancy’s a little more cold as a skater. She has a nice presentation, but it’s not really coming from the inside. It’s the difference between good presentation and a little better presentation.”

Presentation was always the problem for poor Tonya. Her mother engaged her first skating coach at the age of three and bullied her natural talent, if the film has any basis in fact, into unequalled athletic prowess. The scene in which she performs her winning triple axel at the US championships and sends the crowd into raptures shows sporting elation at its purest. But it turns out that in the figure-skating world, unlike in the boxing ring (to which she eventually turned when skating was lost to her), they demand both your heart and your soul. Smile and be nice – both inside and out, according to Ms Lindgren – or lose marks.

Emil Zatopek, Czechoslovak runner of the 1940s and 50s won his Olympic long distance gold medals with his face in a rictus of contorted suffering. Someone once complained to him, “Emil, couldn’t you look a little happier when you are winning?” He responded – “I do not have enough talent to run fast and smile at the same time”. He was in the right sport, clearly. Tonya had the wrong one imposed on her.


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