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Off Axis: “Soap Opera on Ice” Upsets Sport Already in Transition

Off Axis: "Soap Opera on Ice" Upsets Sport Already in Transition

by Larry Ciptak

 

The following is an excerpt of "Off Axis: Figure Skating Spins Into the Limelight & Out of Control", a 47-page special edition of American Skating World, researched, written and designed by Larry Ciptak.

copyright 1994 Business Communications, Inc.

 

As figure skating rides a new wave of popularity, the debacle that has become known as the Kerrigan/ Harding affair raises numerous questions not only about the future of the sport, but the meaning behind the events that have further driven the skating community into an unsettling period of transformation.

Prior to the Detroit attack, the skating community was already facing weighty challenges. Should professionals be allowed back into amateur competition? How would the influx of Russian skaters into the US affect national competition? Had the economic consequences of USFSA rule changes regarding compensation already mutated the idealistic nature of fair play? Was an era of innocence over?

Whatever the verdict, it has become increasingly clear that recent events have only served to further highlight existing issues that skating will have to deal with as consequences stemming from the Nancy Kerrigan attack continue to alter the character of an already mobile industry.

On January 6, 1994, New York Bullets forward Larry Stewart was assaulted in his home by four men, tied up, stabbed in the thigh and shot in the neck.

On the same day, Nancy Kerrigan was clubbed on the knee in Detroit.

But why was the near-fatal attack on Stewart—a black male—generally buried by the media while Kerrigan— a white female—was thrust into the limelight as a national tragedy?

The media's handling of the two stories exposes an unsettling standard in what society considers "newsworthy." Media critics have long purported that violence against blacks is generally accepted by the media as "business as usual." Then why the frenzied media coverage of the Kerrigan/Harding circumstance?

Many social attitudes must be called into question. Does society tend to sentimentalize the lives of women? What is, and what isn't, socially acceptable behavior for women? And how does the media contribute to the propagation of sex stereotypes?

Society has yet to allow women to embrace a competitive nature and a will to win. Given the societal context, did Harding's personality and demeanor implicate her before any facts were presented? Did the media seize the opportunity to turn the event into a "cat fight" rather than a competition—and what does this say about our perception of women, athletes or not?

To many in American society, Kerrigan—beauty and grace—makes a perfect heroine while Tonya Harding—power and strength—is the archetype villain. Kerrigan is dedicated to her family; Harding smokes in public, shoots pool and works on cars. Though both come from blue-collar backgrounds, Kerrigan embraces, even admires, the hierarchy of the skating establishment, while Harding questions the motives of industry decision-makers and officials. It's a dream combination for the media and for Hollywood—"lady versus tramp"—which are eager to milk every possible story line from this scenario before moving onto another Lorena Bobbitt, Joey Buttafuoco or Michael Jackson.

From the Monica Seles stabbing to the Texas cheerleader mother who tried to hire a hit man to kill her daughter's competitors mother, it is obvious that violence has overstepped traditional boundaries and somehow infiltrated sports activities known for their genteel nature.

But the Kerrigan/Harding affair must also be viewed in the larger matrix of skating. Skating has been in a hard to gauge but steady transition since men's three-time world champion Scott Hamilton defeated Brian Orser in the men's event at the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics. Many surmised that Orser outperformed Hamilton, but still had to settle for the silver and not the gold. But this would be the last obvious time that reputation judging would usurp performance-based decision-making in any Olympic or world event outside of dance—although that did not mean that champions would not expect this courtesy.

The shift in judging philosophy—albeit subtle—had a large impact on the competitive nature of skating. No longer could a competitor count on working up skating's ladder to eventually fill the gap of a champion who would graciously step aside once reaching his or her pinnacle, didn't guarantee even a placement the following season, and there were many skaters—Tonya Harding included—rudely caught in the change-over.

Simultaneously, the realities of USFSA compensation changes quickly placed intense economic pressure on skaters. It was no longer only love, pride and glory driving amateur skaters at the competitive level; multimillion dollar endorsements were now at stake. Thoughts of marketability replaced those of competitive spirit.

The Olympics are the one moment that captures the world's attention, that makes or breaks a reputation. A lifetime of training in exchange for four minutes of ice time, one brief golden chance to grasp the opportunity to join touring ice shows, millions in endorsements and lucrative merchandising contracts.

And a little bit of glory.

Where figure skating goes from here will remain to be seen. Some predict that the industry will expunge this cancerous event and return to some semblance of normalcy, while others contend that the face of skating is forever changed. They contend that regardless of the legal outcome recently negotiated with district attorneys in Portland, Tonya Harding will be forever tainted in connection with Kerrigan's attack. Kerrigan—still officially eligible but in no way playing the role of the amateur—will soon go on tour and garnish lucrative commercial endorsements—recent estimates have her already signing contracts valued at $11 million—and she could very well remain America's sweetheart for years to come.

And what will become of figure skating? Most likely the sport will never quite recapture the pristine image it once held in the public's eye.

 

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