ByElise Jost, writer at
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Elise Jost

Life doesn't always need a movie adaptation to sound thrilling and borderline impossible — sometimes, the drama just writes itself. Such is the story of Tony Harding, figure skating world champion and the demanding milieu's ugly duckling, whose altercation with competitor Nancy Kerrigan set a new precedent in Olympic-level scandalous gossip and tabloid coverage.

With I, Tonya, Margot Robbie is bringing the complex affair that rocked sports journalism throughout the '90s to the big screen. Playing her husband and supposed instigator of the whole affair, Marvel's heartthrob Sebastian Stan joined the cast as Jeff Gillooly — he was the one to hire Shane Stant, with the help of Harding's bodyguard Shawn Eckhardt, to break Kerrigan's leg. But what about Harding herself? To understand what makes her story so compelling, here's the true story of the fallen star of figure skating.

Humble Beginnings

Tonya Harding
Tonya Harding

Born in 1970, Harding started skating at 3 years old and favored the sport over school. Soon, she'd reached the level of the biggest competitions, winning Skate America and ranking third at the US Figure Skating Championships in 1989. She was also the first female skater to get a perfect score for her triple axel — a highly complex jump involving a triple rotation — at the US Championships in 1991.

But unlike other young girls at that level, she didn't have any sponsors or advertisements lined up. It was her mother who made her costumes, and not only did she later reveal judges had sharply criticized her for her outfits, she also claimed her mother abused her. From the beginning, she didn't have the financial and social background that was common in the world of figure skating, and many believe she was already singled out before the drama that put an end to her career.

The Nancy Kerrigan Affair

In 1994, shortly before the Winter Olympics, Harding's ex-husband Jeff Gillooly and her bodyguard Shawn Eckhardt hired a man to get her main competitor, Nancy Kerrigan, off the circuit. The man, Shane Shant, hit her right leg after practice, but didn't break it — and by the time the Olympics rolled around, Kerrigan had recovered and earned the silver medal. Harding, meanwhile, ranked eighth.

Harding claimed she'd wanted to warn the authorities, but had been threatened badly enough by her ex-husband that she'd been too scared to take any measures against his plan. Meanwhile, Kerrigan was on the cover of magazines and more popular than ever before. When Harding finally pleaded guilty to conspiring to hinder prosecution of the attackers, she was stripped of her 1994 champion title, banned from attending the 1994 World Figure Skating Championships and forced to resign from the US Figure Skating Association, meaning that she'd never be able to perform or coach at a competitive event again.

See also:

The Story of Tonya Harding Is Already The Perfect Movie Plot

Margot Robbie in 'The Wolf of Wall Street'
Margot Robbie in 'The Wolf of Wall Street'

What makes her story so fascinating is that it was never really clear if she was a ruthless and unethical competitor, or a victim of the unforgiving media coverage of her rise and fall, as well as of the lack of support from the people surrounding her. The 2014 documentary on ESPN titled The Price of Gold took a new look at the affair, exploring more of Harding's tough times, and accusing the drastic gap between her and Kerrigan's depiction in the media, like a perfect tale of the brutal villain and the flawless victim.

While the interest of the press in a sport that was until then seldom covered in the news had reached unprecedented levels at the time, there are still enough grey areas that the story will make for a gripping movie.


Had you heard of Tonya Harding before?

(Sources: Deadline, The Daily Beast)


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