Tonya Harding, the former figure skater best known for the plot to kneecap her rival Nancy Kerrigan before the 1994 Winter Olympics, has become the darling of Hollywood at a time the movie industry is grappling with violence against women.
Thanks in large measure to “I, Tonya,” a critically acclaimed biopic starring Margot Robbie that goes into wide release Friday, Ms. Harding is being lionized as a victim and a survivor in Tinseltown, even though questions remain about how much she knew beforehand about the plan to hobble Ms. Kerrigan.
ESPN sportswriter Jeremy Schaap lamented Hollywood’s effort to “humanize” Ms. Harding without context.
“Let us not lose sight of the fact that Tonya Harding is no hero,” Mr. Schaap said on the sports network’s “Outside the Lines.” “Tonya Harding is a villain. What happened to Nancy Kerrigan was despicable. And she could have been more seriously hurt.”
After more than two decades as a pariah, Ms. Harding has become a sympathetic character almost overnight.
She has been featured in fawning media profiles and television specials that attempt to tell her side of the story: her difficult upbringing in a trailer park, the emotional and physical abuse she suffered at the hands of her mother and her first husband, and her inability to fit the ice-princess mold despite precocious skating ability.
The figure skating champion was a guest of honor this month at the Golden Globe Awards ceremony — where attendees simultaneously cheered her and denounced violence against women. Celebrities at the gala wore black outfits and “Time’s Up” pins to protest the culture of sexual harassment and assault in Hollywood.
When actress Allison Janney, who portrayed the figure skater’s mother, LaVona Fay Golden, accepted the Golden Globe for best supporting actress, she thanked Ms. Harding for allowing the film’s writers to “tell all the different sides of the story.”
To “tell a story about class in America,” Miss Janney said. “Tell a story about the disenfranchised. Tell a story about a woman who was not embraced for her individuality. Tell a story about truth and the perception of truth in the media and the truths we all tell ourselves when we wake up in bed every morning and go out and live our lives.”
Christian Toto, a film critic who runs the Hollywood in Toto blog, said the rehabilitation of Ms. Harding’s image is inconsistent with Hollywood’s effort to stamp out harassment and assault against women.
“It certainly appears that she knew something was going on. I don’t think she was a complete innocent,” said Mr. Toto, who contributes articles to The Washington Times. “So, I think rallying around her does not make sense, whether this is the ‘Me Too’ year or not. You can honor the film for its quality, and you can honor the fact that she struggled and survived a rough upbringing — sort of succeeded and failed in that sense — but it’s a story where we still don’t know all of the facts.”
At the 1994 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Detroit, Shane Stant, a hitman hired by Ms. Harding’s ex-husband Jeff Gillooly and bodyguard Shawn Eckardt, bludgeoned Ms. Kerrigan’s leg with a police baton after a practice session.
Ms. Kerrigan recovered from the injury in time to win the Olympic silver medal for women’s figure skating at Lillehammer, Norway, three weeks later.
Ms. Harding, who placed eighth at the Olympic Games, denied any involvement in the plot. She was later found guilty of hindering the prosecution and fined $100,000. All of the co-conspirators, including getaway driver Derrick Smith, served time in prison.
In an ABC special that aired last week, Ms. Harding admitted that she had overheard her ex-husband talking about eliminating the competition to ensure she would make the Olympic team.
“I did, however, overhear them talking about stuff where, ‘Well, maybe we should take somebody out to make sure she gets on the team,’” said Ms. Harding, now Tonya Price. “I go, ‘What the hell are you talking about?’”
It was the first time she admitted to knowing anything in advance about the plot to injure Ms. Kerrigan.
Johnny Weir, a two-time U.S. Olympic figure skater, dismissed the publicly surrounding Ms. Harding as “glamorization of a villain simply because she was born on the ‘wrong side of the tracks.’”
“While her upbringing may have been tragic, athletes from all walks of life succeed based on merit, not assault,” Mr. Weir said this month. “I won’t applaud her, and I stand for Nancy.”
Indeed, little attention has been given to the fact that Ms. Kerrigan came from a blue-collar family. Her father, a welder, worked three jobs in order to support his daughter’s figure skating dreams.
“I think there’s this misconception that Nancy Kerrigan was born in Buckingham Palace. It’s all false,” Matt Harkins, curator of the Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan 1994 Museum in New York, said in the ABC News special. “She was from a very working-class background.”
“I’ve been busy,” Ms. Kerrigan told The Boston Globe. “I was at the national [figure skating] championship this week, so I didn’t watch the Golden Globes. I haven’t seen the movie. I’m just busy living my life.”
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