It’s an Olympic year. For a front-row seat on the human condition, there is not a better assignment for a sports journalist than the Olympics. So if I were writing a book on my experiences covering 11 Olympic Games (which I so far only have threatened to do), here is where I would start…..
Tonya and Nancy already had hijacked the Lillehammer Olympics by the time citizens of the world arrived in Norway in February 1994. There already had been weeks of legal scrimmages and news-conference scrums leading up to the Games, feeding the public’s compulsive appetite for sordid, sensational theatre.
Every day was a headline: The bodyguard squealed. The hit man confessed. Tonya Harding denied everything. OK, Harding knew—but only after the fact—of the Olympic Trials plot against figure-skating rival Nancy Kerrigan. Harding’s ex-husband ratted on her.
It was a paperback novel. A game of Clue. It was the bodybuilder. With a telescoping baton. In the practice rink. The story had operatic heft, daytime TV melodrama, something to offer to crime sleuths and voyeurs alike as it veered from serious to silly. It was an episode that simultaneously brought unprecedented attention to the Olympics even as it revealed the underbelly of ferocious competition—and didn’t necessarily show media coverage at its best.
So, we should talk about that.
Meanwhile, though: Consider the Olympic big picture, this wonderful mess of contrasts, this incongruous pageant of crass commercialism, uplifting personal triumph, clashing politics, inspirational brotherhood, divergent cultures and international confusion—all balled up into this wacky theme park consisting of mostly odd sports.
And just plain adventure.
Two days before the Lillehammer Opening Ceremonies, I and a couple of fellow ink-stained wretches visited an army-green tepee positioned on the edge of frozen Lake Mjosa—down the hill from the center of Lillehammer—to sit cross-legged on reindeer rugs around a cozy fire for a chat with four Sami women.
The Sami—don’t call them “Lapps,” the politically incorrect term Norwegians often used that translates to “outcasts”—had created a campsite to position themselves in the Olympic spotlight and depict the traditional life of their people, nomadic reindeer herders from the northern-most edges of Norway, Sweden and Finland.
Gunhild Sara Buljo, marveling a bit at temperatures (8 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit) far warmer than at her home near the North Pole, was wearing a multicolored, hood-like gohpin on her head and a ruffled, pleated knee-length gakti dress of blacks and reds. She resembled a square dancer from somewhere in the American Midwest. Ellen Eira Rasoal sat next to her, stirring the contents of three large black pots. “Reindeer meat, coffee and”—Rasoal smiled—“toddy.”
Another Real Olympic Experience. Through the intensity and drama of grand sporting competitions and global ambiance, the Olympics never fails to provide what Times of London columnist Simon Barnes once described as “an unfailing source of fabulousness” with “an incandescent vividness….”
So true. Beyond the competitive landscape are the lessons. Geographical, historical, cultural, political, lingual. Culinary.
In Seoul (1988), I learned that eating kimchi can clear your sinuses, whether you want them cleared or not. In Barcelona (1992), I discovered a daily timetable that takes some getting used to—the locals take their afternoon siestas, don’t eat dinner until around 10 p.m., regularly lounge at outdoor shops drinking coffee or stronger beverages until 2 or 3 a.m. In Nagano (1998), a handful of us found the small tunnel near the Olympic complex where government, military leaders and Emperor Hirohito were to have been sheltered late in World War II in the event of the ground war which never came.
In Sydney (2000), I was repeatedly informed by laid-back native Aussies that there are “no worries.” In Athens (2004), I was constantly reminded that a walk along Aristotle Street or Socrates Street did not cause one to be philosophical so much as practical: Red lights did not necessarily apply along the buzzing, narrow roadways. And motor scooters were known to pull onto sidewalks among the pedestrians.
In Lillehammer—while editors were terrorized into insisting that “we must keep this Tonya and Nancy story alive,” dispatching four times the manpower necessary to detail every sniffle and frown on display in figure-skating practice sessions—I learned about the Sami’s indigenous tonal chant, the Yoik; about how most modern Sami lived in log cabins rather than tepees; about how each Sami family in the far North kept its own flock of reindeer. For food, for entertainment (they raced them), for clothing and rugs.
I also learned about trolls.
Everywhere were statues of trolls, some only four inches tall, others as high as a grown human’s chest. It was possible to buy a Troll Certificate, which proclaimed: “This is to Certify That (insert your name here) has visited Norway, the Kingdom of the Trolls, and today became a member of the Friends of the Trolls.” It had a very official Friends-of-the-Trolls seal in the lower right-hand corner.
There were troll restaurants, a Troll Garden Hotel, an entire Troll Park in Lillehammer’s Gudbrandsdalen Valley, a “world’s largest troll sculpture”—45 feet high, weighing 70 tons and looking like a furry takeoff on Rodin’s “The Thinker”—in nearby Hunderfossen. And whole sections of troll literature in Norwegian bookstores.
I was told by Kjerstin Hansen, who worked for the Ministry of Family and Children in Oslo, that trolls “are quite dumb. Most of the stories about trolls have something to do with a princess being taken away by a troll, then someone rescues the princess, and the troll doesn’t even understand what happened.”
Trolls, the natives related, can be fooled into benign dancing to the music of famous Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg, and often can be talked out of potential trouble by little children. Yet my search for a real, live troll did not go well.
“Maybe you are looking in the wrong places,” one Lillehammer resident said.
“You should look up there, in those mountains above the Olympic ski jump,” an Olympic volunteer suggested. “But you must go at night. And you must not bring a flashlight or torch. Trolls don’t like light.”
At the Olympic information desk, it was recommended that “you need to have a lot of fantasy” to find a troll. “And aquavit,” which is a strong alcoholic drink made from potato and caraway. “The homemade stuff is the best,” I was assured.
But then, in the end—without benefit of flashlight or liquor—I became convinced that I had found this American troll, set loose in Norway to bring a cloud of confusion to everyone and everything. Tonya Harding.
The conclusion of that eerie Tonya and Nancy tale came in Hamar, the satellite Olympic city an hour’s drive south of Lillehammer where the figure skating competition played out in a smallish arena that seated 6,000 people and was crawling with media. Even though most Norwegians preferred to follow the biathlon—a combination of cross-country skiing and shooting.
The women’s long-program skating final was on February 25, 1994—50 days after the bizarre attack on Harding’s rival, Kerrigan, during a practice session at the U.S. Olympic skating trials in Detroit. (I should have known something unpleasant was afoot in the Motor City that week; there was no hot water in my Detroit hotel shower.)
The Harding-Kerrigan dirty-tricks story brought an invasion of high-profile television celebrities such as Connie Chung and big-name columnists, dispatched to Norway in anticipation of possible mayhem—parachuting into what they believed would be a gold-medal showdown between the two U.S. rivals. Teams of reporters were ordered to synchronize their watches to Tonya Standard Time and pay her full attention—even during the first week of the Olympics, before Harding had arrived in Norway.
What added to the whole Twilight Zone tension, of course, were the backgrounds of Harding and Kerrigan. One, Harding, a hardscrabble Oregon lass, a smoker (though Harding lied about that) proud of her blue-collar skills as drag-racer and mechanic, street-wise and tough. The other, Kerrigan, a more traditionally elegant practitioner of the event and highly sought for endorsements—a sort of Cinderella, whose father was a welder on disability, her mother legally blind.
Of course, when Harding arrived in Norway, out of shape and moody, the weirdness factor only multiplied. My newspaper, Long Island’s Newsday, became so caught up in the anticipation of physical danger that it photo-shopped a front-page picture of Harding and Kerrigan virtually side-by-side in practice to suggest an on-ice confrontation.
So, OK, the what-bleeds-leads tabloid types got part of what they wanted. During practice between the skating short and long programs, there was a bizarre training-session crash: Another Tonya—Tanja Szewczenko of Germany—collided with Oksana Baiul, the 16-year-old orphan from Ukraine and eventual gold medalist, who suffered a cut on her leg, requiring stitches, and a strained back.
And that wasn’t all. The next morning’s warmup session for the gold-medal final featured a double-dare incident, wherein two-time champion Katarina Witt shouted down France’s Surya Bonaly after a slight fender-bender resulting from Bonaly’s intimidating drive-bys while the top competitors shared the rink.
Throughout this melodrama, what most news organizations missed was how the singular Tonya-Nancy story was thoroughly tangled in the stereotype of women in sports. No other Olympic sport—no other sport, period—is as committed to presenting women in the “traditional” sense of beauty and effortless grace as figure skating is.
Furthermore, “traditional” values of commoner (Harding) and princess (Kerrigan)—though only partially based in fact—fueled a theater aspect that served to keep women’s figure skating on the fringe of “real” sports, thereby furthering a marginalization of women athletes.
There was a goodly amount of irony to that. The Lillehammer Olympics were staged in a nation theoretically ideal for promoting women’s sports, in that Norway is a country of the vigorous outdoors and Norwegians of both sexes, from the time they are 3 or 4 years old, are introduced to cross-country skiing and camping in the frozen woods.
At the time of those Olympics, both Norway’s prime minister (Gro Harlem Brundtland) and president of its parliament (Kristi Kolle Grondahl) were women, as is Norway’s current prime minister (Erna Solberg). Plus, of course, Norway’s queen, Sonja.
Yet in Norway’s push to win medals during those ’94 Olympics, almost all of the 230 million Norwegian kroner (about $33 million U.S. at the time) poured into its sports federations was going into men’s sports. And, after all, when that male chauvinist French Baron Pierre de Coubertin founded the Modern Olympics in 1896, he declared the Games to be “the solemn periodic manifestation of male sport based on internationalism, on loyalty as a means, on arts as a background and the applause of women as a recompense.” He fought against the inclusion of female athletes in his Games.
So there we were in that winter wonderland, most of us ordered by editors to take the daily bus ride from our housing in small accommodations near Lillehammer, down to Hamar, to witness another dull skating workout and the fairly embarrassing effort of hundreds of reporters to get Harding or Kerrigan, or anyone else, to say something interesting or informative about the upcoming competition. (I did borrow a colleague’s rental car one day for the short trip, and was treated, as I drove, to live play-by-play of the men’s downhill on the radio. In Norwegian. There was great excitement in the broadcaster’s call, though I was helpless, with my uneducated American ear, to understand any of the description. It just sounded like, “Babada babada babada babada Tommy Moe! Babada babada babada Tommy Moe! Tommy Moe! Tommy Moe!” At least I was not surprised to learn, a bit later, that American Tommy Moe had turned in a terrific run. And won.)
Understand that editors who wouldn’t know an Axel from an 18-wheeler expected a buildup to a sort of Ali vs. Frazier fight of the century. There were legitimate aspects to the nutty episode, of course, with Harding threatening to sue the U.S. Olympic Committee if she were prevented from competing, and the USOC lawyering up to insure against future embarrassment of this kind. But veteran Olympic observers long before came to the conclusion that Harding was completely off her game. Kerrigan’s physical recovery from the attack by Harding’s henchmen was a story. Harding’s competitive possibilities were nonexistent.
She had been runner-up in the 1991 world championships, part of the American sweep with winner Kristi Yamaguchi and third-place Kerrigan, but by the time she got to Norway, she was no threat to medal, really nothing more than a sideshow. She eventually finished a badly beaten eighth.
It was Kerrigan who took the lead in the skating short program and who performed the competitive routine of her life in the decisive long program, only to lose a narrow 5-4 judges’ vote—strictly along Eastern bloc-Western partisan lines—to Baiul.
Not quite three years later Baiul, having relocated to Connecticut to further a professional skating career, was arrested for driving drunk at 97 miles per hour in a 45-mph zone in suburban Hartford. Not Harding’s fault. But during and after the Lillehammer Olympics, an over-the-top chaos seemed to emanate from the Harding stakeout.
In the end, it was as if Typhoid Tonya had cast her evil spell on the entire proceedings. And the whole life-imitating-art-imitating-life extremes became—and remain—deeply ingrained in the popular culture.
Louden Wainwright III wrote a song, “Tonya Twirls:”
You knew she was in trouble/ When you saw her bodyguard.
When you saw those two together/ You knew it wasn’t hard
To see that she was different,/ Not just one of the girls;
With their gliding and their sliding/ And their piroutees and twirls.
There have been versions of Harding trotted out on Seinfeld, on the Simpsons. Weird Al Yankovic included the Tonya and Nancy account in his music video “Headline News,” with a scene of “Tonya” and “Nancy” literally wrestling on the ice. “Tonya, The Musical” was a short-run, low-budget, very-far-off-Broadway show in which “Tonya” sang, “I want the cash” and rhymed it with “I’m tired of bein’ white trash,” and “Nancy” simpered through “It’s Not My Fault I’m Good.”
In 2008, “Tonya & Nancy, The Rock Opera,” was staged in Portland, Ore. (with the real Tonya in the audience one night).
“My mom is legally blind,” sang the Kerrigan character in the introductory number.
“My mom is legally nuts,” responded the Harding actress.
On the 15th anniversary of the Lillehammer Games, I spoke to the original creative source behind that production, novelist Elizabeth Searle, who called the Tonya and Nancy drama “a primal story that taps into the themes of American life. It’s a microcosm of our celebrity-crazed, super-competitive, violent, glitzy society. There’s just a theme of obsessive competitiveness of American life; almost anyone can relate to that. The jealousy. The wanting to do anything to win. Also, the characters: You couldn’t imagine these people.”
The rock opera’s songs were ripped directly from headlines and from actual quotes, with titles such as “Whip Her Butt” (sung by “Tonya”), “Estacada” (a lament by Harding’s ex-husband, Jeff Gilloly: “When you wake up sleeping in your car in Estacada, ‘cause your house is surrounded by reporters and FBI…”)
Other titles were “The Laces Broke”—a reference to Harding requesting a do-over during her Olympic final because of skate problems—“You’re the One” and “It’s Our Whole Life” (a Tonya-Nancy duet).
Searle called the strangely true Tonya and Nancy drama an “absurd, only-in-America dark comedy. And, unlike O.J., it didn’t end tragically. Some people can still laugh about it.”
So, one Olympic cycle after the Harding-Kerrigan caper, when Tara Lipinski and Michelle Kwan were gearing up for a far more benign duel for Olympic gold in Nagano, battling each other at the national championships in the country music capital of Nashville, I couldn’t pass on attempting a lyric that melded the local genre with the competition.
I envisioned words set to music featuring a slide guitar and fiddle accompaniment—quintessentially middle American. The thing would have been published, if two crack Olympic writers—Jay Weiner of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and Brian Cazeneuve of Sports Illustrated—and I had been able to sell our proposal for a thoughtful yet fun-loving book we were going to call “Numb and Numb-er, The Winter Olympics Guide for Flakes.”
It went something like this….
I can’t figure skatin’/ And I can’t figure her
Slippin’ around with guys in sequins/ Fallin’ on their wallets with a certain frequen
‘Course I’ve heard of Tonya/ Heard of Nancy, too.
But this ain’t exactly stock-car racin’/ Ain’t football and ain’t quail-chasin’ –I
No knee-cappin’, no fist-fightin’/ No bad-mouthin’ in a bind.
She’ll smile right onto that gold-medal stand/ If she can just stay off her behind.
Is Tara in the short program?/ Is Michelle in the long?
Does size have somethin’ to do with things?/ How come there’s music but nobody sings
Some costumes’ll make you cry,/ Some’ll make you laugh.
Judges just settin’ there with poker faces/ Givin’ life sentences on the basis
Of a four ‘n’ a half.
About the four-and-a-half reference: This was before they changed skating’s scoring system, from a perfect 6.0. But, then, there are lots of old country songs out there that allude to nickels in jukeboxes and dimes in pay phones.
And, by the way, during that visit with the Sami women? We asked if those folks, visiting from up there above the Arctic Circle, had ever heard of someone named Tonya Harding. One of the women solemnly removed a stick that was stirring the pot of reindeer meat. And gently whacked herself on the knee.