Tag Archives: figure skating

Kendra James, Tonya Harding, and the Dictatorship of Expectation

Laurie and Debbie say:

In 1994, the figure skating world was rocked with a major scandal, when skater Nancy Kerrigan was attacked and hit in the leg the day before the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. Kerrigan was unable to skate the next day, and Tonya Harding won the championship (which she might well have lost to Kerrigan if Kerrigan had been in competition). A couple of weeks later, Tonya Harding confessed to having been a party to the attack on Kerrigan. It took months for the media furor to die down.

Sarah Marshall, writing at The Believer, recaps and analyzes the Kerrigan/Harding story at some length. Here is some of her context on Harding and Kerrigan.

[Kerrigan’s] performance at the 1992 Games was not a triumph of athleticism—though even then Nancy was a far more formidable athlete than anyone gave her credit for—but it was a triumph of image-making. To the commentators, she was “lovely,” “ladylike,” “elegant,” and “sophisticated,” and the audience agreed. Vera Wang had based the design for Nancy’s costume on a dress from her bridal boutique, and as Nancy took the ice in Albertville, France, skating to the theme from Born on the Fourth of July, she seemed to be presenting herself as America’s hopeful young bride. Even her lack of competitive savvy gave her an air of innocence and sincerity: she was radiant when she landed a difficult jump, and appeared near tears after making a mistake. She had the style and grace of a woman, but the bashfulness and sincerity of a girl. She was beautiful without being sexual, strong without being intimidating, and vulnerable without being weak, and in the end she embodied no quality quite so perfectly as she did the set of draconian contradictions that dictated a female athlete’s success. …

When Tonya first rocketed to fame by landing the triple axel in 1991, the media had tried to put a more positive—and more salable—slant on her lifestyle, using the same information, which they would later call in as proof of her trashiness, to paint a picture of a spunky, all-American tomboy. In the words of one profile piece, “She’s only five feet one inch… and weighs only ninety-five pounds. But as petite as she is, there’s a tomboy streak in her that she’s proud of. She drives a truck and tinkers with her car… Yet there’s clearly a young lady coming through in her skating, and her personality.” In 1991, the skating world had no choice but to try to love Tonya: she had done what no other American woman could, and if she continued to grow as a skater—and continued to act more and more like “a young lady”—she could make her country proud at the Olympics, and earn both its love and its money.

Back then, she also didn’t need stories of ladylike behavior and quirky tomboyishness to convince her audience that she was worth believing in. At the pinnacle of her career, Tonya was, in a word, spectacular. At the time, the only other woman who had landed the axel was Midori Ito of Japan. Midori was a remarkable jumper, and she made the axel look effortless: launching all four feet nine inches of herself into the air, her body seemed light, buoyant, and meant for flight. Tonya’s axel did not look effortless. It did not even look beautiful. It looked difficult—which, of course, it was.

Of course, once Harding’s role in the attack on Kerrigan was revealed, no “positive slant” was possible. Harding  was completely demonized; Kerrigan was completely canonized. The media focused relentlessly on a single story. One thing Marshall does in the long article is shed some doubt on Harding’s complicity, by framing the confession in the context of Harding’s incontestably abusive marriage.

Twenty years later, African-American skater Kendra James links her own experience to the Kerrigan/Harding chasm.

Kendra James on the ice

Photo is figure skater Surya Bonaly.

Whether it was my my height, my different hair (no neat skating bun for me), the fact that I couldn’t buy skating stockings that matched the color of my skin, the fact that I couldn’t order and wear the same shades of makeup as the other (white) girls on my synchonised skating team, there was always something that kept me from feeling like I was adored the same way the other skaters were.

By the time I left high school I had all my double jumps down, passed all my moves tests, and was helping to coach a local synchronised skating team, so it wasn’t for lack of talent that the familiar accolades of “you’re so graceful” or “you have such artistry” seemed to always turn to variations of “you’re so athletic/aggressive!” or “you have such a unique style”. Someone at my club in Connecticut commented that I’d probably be amazing at track and field because my skating was so fast and powerful, and had I thought about that instead? New York City tourists have politely and very complimentary (in their eyes) told me that I’m “the best Black skater they’ve ever seen, and so powerful!” Strong, powerful, aggressive, athletic; not the words you want to hear in the delicate, feminine world of figure skating.

James goes on to draw other parallels between herself and Harding, such as choice of nontraditional skating music.

Racism is not classism, but African-Americans in this culture are presumed to come from lower-status class backgrounds, regardless of the reality of their lives. And abuse happens at all levels of society. Nonetheless, James’ conclusion matters:

We can’t excuse whatever part Tonya Harding may or may not have played in the assault on Nancy Kerrigan in 1994, but I get what it’s like to not be seen as the “‘lovely,’ ‘ladylike,’ ‘elegant,’ and ‘sophisticated,’ one,” and spending the energy trying to conform to a sport standard that’s not necessarily made to fit how the world’s been trained to see you. I suspect that several other Black athletes do as well; along with [Surya] Bonaly, Serena Williams comes quickly to mind.

Gender and the Olympics: Some Retrospective Comments

Laurie and Debbie say:

The Olympics (summer and winter) are, of course, gender-essentialist events, with virtually every sport and competition being men-only or women-only. And yes, there are some good reasons for sports events to be gendered, though the truths of different abilities are a lot more subtle and complex than they are generally presented … and of course, not everyone is straightforwardly male or female.

At the same time, the Olympics are special to young people who either are or want to be athletes: a chance to project yourself into that gold medal winner who might be from your country, or look like you, or be winning in a sport you’re good at, or just be someone you can imagine being.

In the Vancouver Olympics, two things happened outside of the actual competitions, both of which underscore the insidious effects of judging people’s behavior by their gender … and both of which brought out really strong responses from athletes.

Johnny Weir at the Vancouver Olympics

Johnny Weir, a U.S. figure skater, is known for his fabulous routines and gender transgressive presentation. After he skated in Vancouver, a couple of Francophone sportscasters made fun of his routines and questioned his gender. Weir responded brilliantly:

He’s not asking for an apology. He says he believes in free speech and wouldn’t want these men fired for expressing their opinion. (“I’ve heard worse in bathrooms and whatnot about me,” he quipped.) He just wants them to think before they speak — and to imagine the damage they could do to people like him and to generations of children whose parents may not give them the same freedom and support his did if they think their child will only be ridiculed for being who he or she is. “I would challenge anyone to question my upbringing and question my parents’ ideals and feelings about bringing up me and my brother, who’s completely different from me but taught very much the same way that I was,” Weir said.

He also said that only his closest intimates know what makes him tick … and it’s no one else’s business.

Special kudos to Weir for saying he doesn’t want an apology: the apology is due to the dreaming kids who were hurt by the sportscaster remarks.

Elsewhere in the Olympics, the Canadian women’s hockey team came in for some criticism after their exciting gold-medal win against the U.S. team. In the grand tradition of sports success everywhere, they had a celebration: beer, champagne, and cigars. They chose to celebrate on the ice they won on.

Canadian women hockey players celebrate

Apparently, one slightly underage team member had some champagne. (The horror!) The International Olympic Committee originally said it would “investigate their behaviour,” but eventually decided to leave the issue alone.

Captain Hayley Wickenheiser said … there was a double standard at work.

Wickenheiser said if it were a men’s team, there wouldn’t be a hint of controversy.

“I don’t brush it off, the underage [part] and being on the ice,” said Wickenheiser. “Those things maybe could have been done different. But at the same time, it’s celebrating, it’s hockey, it’s a tradition we do. When we see a Stanley Cup winner, we see them spraying champagne all over the dressing room, you see 18-year-old kids there and nobody says a thing.”

Wickenheiser didn’t specifically reference the girls watching at home and imagining their own victories, but those girls are still part of the story.

Both of these events have received a lot of coverage, but we haven’t seen anybody putting them together. Despite the huge forces out there who want men to behave “like men” and women “like women,” and will work hard to enforce gender policing, the Johnny Weirs and Hayley Wickenheisers are getting more power and more voice. And that is the best thing that can happen for children with dreams.