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This story first appeared in the Feb. 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Talk about a scandal triple axel: On Jan. 6, 1994, figure skater Nancy Kerrigan was clubbed in the knee, rival Tonya Harding and her husband were implicated, and both ladies still managed to compete in the Lillehammer Winter Olympics. Now, 20 years later with the Sochi Games almost underway, the television players of that time recount the madness, comedy and how that incident became the final turning point in TV’s tabloidization.
The CBS News anchor on scoring the first network interview with Harding.
What happened on Jan. 6, 1994, not only changed the pristine fairy-tale world of figure skating — where pretty little girls twirl, jump and glide to the delight of audiences — it also changed the American news media.
Nancy Kerrigan, the beautiful Snow White skating princess poised for Olympic gold, was violently clubbed in the knee with a metal bar by a burly thug. It was a shock not only to the dark-haired beauty but to the news media, which saw her as their darling. She screamed and cried, “Why, why, why?” as the goon and his partner ran. One of the hapless pair even used his head (not the metal bar!) to bash a glass door to escape.
We would soon learn the caper was hatched by the husband of Nancy’s Olympic gold rival, Tonya Harding. She was the fairy tale’s ugly duckling, a frizzy-haired athletic skater from the wrong side of the tracks. Tonya’s husband, with the unusual name of Jeff Gillooly, had physically abused her as had, she alleged, her night-shift waitress mother. But Tonya had moxie. She was a feisty, driven toughie fueled by guts, not grace.
What emerged was a sordid tale that played out like a bad TV movie, rife with Shakespearean themes: love, hate, lust and betrayal. Love of skating — skating was Tonya’s life. Hate for Nancy — the perfect angel in Vera Wang tutus. Lust for fame and fortune — Tonya’s path to a new life. Betrayal of her teammate — Tonya betrayed the spirit of the Olympics.
I was just anointed my ultimate dream job: sitting in Walter Cronkite’s anchor chair on the CBS Evening News. Actually, I was sitting in half of Uncle Walter’s chair: I was the first woman to co-anchor the CBS Evening News, the flagship broadcast.
I had been on the coveted anchor desk for six months, savoring the important stories: anchoring the White House signing ceremony of the historic Israeli-Palestinian (Rabin-Arafat) accord; interviewing President Clinton about NAFTA before it was passed and signed into law; and getting the first interview with U.S. Army Pilot Michael Durant, who survived after he was dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. Two U.S. Black Hawk choppers had been shot down. Almost 100 Americans were killed or wounded in the Battle of Mogadishu.
CBS had bought the 1994 Winter Olympics for a pretty penny. A controversy at the Olympic figure skating competition — the most-watched sport at the Winter Games — would be a ratings winner. CBS had a vested interest in covering and hyping the story.
I drew the short straw.
Soon I found myself on a plane to Portland, Ore., to dog Tonya and her ne’er-do-well associates who attempted to sabotage Nancy’s path to the gold.
It was not fun being with the hordes of media at the Clackamas Town Center Mall, a shopping mall in Happy Valley, a suburb of Portland. The mall was where Tonya practiced. It was a very public rink. Anyone could watch — and they did. Cameras from all over the world parachuted into Happy Valley … from Japan and Australia and, of course, the Brits arrived, too. It was a delicious tabloid story. Even the venerable New York Times stood side by side with the National Enquirer. It was then I knew that a dramatic change had shaken the news business: Sensational overtook significant events.
I found myself staring down a steep eight-foot wall to a large rink below me trying to get a word with skating’s bad girl as she circled around the rink. “Tonya! Tonya!” I beckoned her to come to my camera. But what swirled in my head was, “Can you imagine Walter Cronkite in his deep, serious voice, ‘Tonya, Tonya … come over here, Tonya!’ ” I don’t think so.
Sure, I had covered many silly stories, but with my new job, I thought those days were over. I was thoroughly embarrassed toddling along with Tonya to the Games in Norway, angling for an interview. She was recalcitrant but finally agreed to a one-on-one in Lillehammer before the competition. During the interview, she handled the questions as deftly as a seasoned politician, refusing to discuss the dastardly act against Nancy. Then, apparently fed up with my repeated attempts to talk about the attack, she suddenly yanked off her microphone and walked out, just like a petulant Capitol Hill insider.
The Harding/Kerrigan saga was one of the first feeding-frenzy stories that would forever change news coverage.
Welcome to the new world of hype and getting the “gets,” newsroom parlance for the cutthroat competition for the big interview, the hot celebrity, the tell-all tattler du jour. It’s where the supermarket tabloids, morning wake-up programs, afternoon talk shows, tabloid TV shows and even the network news broadcasts collide in a mad scramble for an exclusive that will sell papers and draw viewers.
The feeding frenzy — glomming on to an unworthy story — became the diet of the day. Less than five months later, the O.J. Simpson murder story broke, and the news business has never been the same.
The Law & Order showrunner was forced to make the skating saga a “ripped from the headlines” episode.
This came up at the end of the season, which is when you start running out of story ideas. Word had come from on high that the then head of NBC, Don Ohlmeyer, wanted us to do the Harding-Kerrigan story. Not a surprising idea for a guy who came out of the sports division.
It’s not a news story we would have naturally drifted to — it all seemed petty and maladroit. And it had the usual pitfall of episodes about famous athletes, namely, you can’t cast the actual famous athlete nor use the famous athlete’s name, and whomever you end up casting will be a total klutz at the sport their character is supposed to be known for — so from the get-go, the story feels false. Unless of course you cast a famous actor, which, for budgetary reasons, wasn’t going to happen on this episode.
But like I said, it was the end of the season, we were tapped out, and after all, this was a request from the head of the network.
So co-writer Michael Chernuchin and I went to work. The first thing we did was relocate the story from the world of diva figure skaters to the world of diva tennis players — changes urged on us by the legal department and by our budget-conscious line producer. Things went downhill from there.
Michael and I never considered “Doubles” to be one of our finest hours. But the episode has a 7-out-of-10 rating on IMDb, so what do we know?
One thing the episode did teach us: Some headlines are better left unripped.
CBS Sports’ play-by-play man for the 1994 skating competition recalls having a small camera set up that would capture a bizarre Olympic moment.
[In Lillehammer] we installed a lipstick camera on the door frame as they exited the ladies locker room [at the Olympic ice rink]. And we had that lipstick camera in place from the very beginning. But it was never used. On Thursday, the day before the ladies final, one of our technicians was wandering down the hallway, and he looked up and noticed that the lipstick cam was pointed straight down. So he got a ladder and he stepped up and adjusted it so that it pointed down the hallway. And then he tightened it so it would stay in place.
David Winner was our producer, and our intent on that Friday night was to show Tonya; we would [show] her skate, get her marks and wish her well. We were live-to-tape. We’re getting ready for Tonya to come on to the ice — Scott Hamilton and Tracy Wilson and I, all three of us, were sitting up in our little perch. And our stage manager says, “David needs you on the headsets immediately.” And so we put our headsets on. And David says, “You’re not going to believe what’s going on backstage.” He said, “Get ready, we start the commentary in three, two, one, go.” And he punched up that lipstick camera, and that’s when we saw Tonya complaining that her laces had broken. So we followed that all the way through. And off the air — he would never say this on the air — Scott said to me: “I can’t believe it. She’s hijacked the Olympics.”
As a CBS Sports correspondent in Lillehammer, she observed the spectacle up close.
There were a couple of false narratives in the story. Nancy Kerrigan had been portrayed by so many people, including Tonya Harding, as some kind of ice princess. And she’s anything but that. She understood how to play the game. And she understood the value of that, of being artistic and wearing the right kind of clothing and all of that. And the other phony narrative that has existed for a long time is Tonya never had a chance because of the perception [of her], where she came from.
But the fact is, she went to two Olympics. She went to two of them. And she had her shot.
The then-president of CBS Sports says he knew the Harding-Kerrigan duel in Norway would be “one of the biggest stories in Olympic history.”
I met Nancy at a reception in Lillehammer [during the games] and my recollection is she was just sour, unsmiling. She wasn’t comfortable. And, frankly, I didn’t hold that against her because there was so much pressure on her — not only from us, but from the European press, which can be more intrusive than the American press. She was basically sequestered. She didn’t march in the Opening Ceremony. Tonya was a pariah because everyone thought she was guilty or was going to be implicated. And Nancy was just hiding. Crazy, it was crazy. If it had happened today, Tonya probably would not have been allowed to skate because I think they would have rushed to judgment a little faster. How can the U.S. Olympic Committee, how can CBS televise an event with a criminal? There would have been a lot more pressure to keep her away from the Olympics. It would be different today.
The matter got presented to the USOC because it was within its jurisdiction whether Tonya would skate. As we got closer and closer to the Games, we realized that Nancy Kerrigan would be able to skate. And of course, that by itself is a huge story, and the person against whom there were allegations of causing her injury would also be skating! I wouldn’t say we were rubbing our hands in glee, but we [knew] we were on to one of the biggest stories in the history of the Olympic Games. Our coverage from Lillehammer got tremendous ratings (a 48.5 rating for the Feb. 23 short program, still among the most-watched sports events in U.S. TV history). I’m dealing with the European press, and this is absolutely true, at one of these press conferences, a [reporter] says: “Well, CBS has certainly benefited from all of this; did you have prior knowledge? Did you know anything about this?” We were inadvertent beneficiaries of this most bizarre series of events.
The former executive director of the U.S. Olympic Committee was in the eye of the media storm when news broke that Kerrigan was attacked and speculation immediately settled on Harding.
I remember Kerrigan’s people had a meeting with us; they wanted us to effectively keep Harding from skating. The difference today versus then is we would have known a lot more about what happened much more quickly because of the prevalence of video cameras. We would have had almost a complete record of every second of those two individuals [hitman Shane Stant and getaway driver Derrick Smith]. It would have been a very different story today.
Everything came down to not embarrassing the Norwegians. When the [IOC] decided that Tonya would be allowed to skate, we were told by the executive committee to make no comments, just to announce that she would skate. The Norwegian government and the organizing committee didn’t want to have a spectacle on their hands in the middle of the Olympic Games. It would have been impossible to hold any kind of hearing in Lillehammer. And without all the pieces in place, there was no way to keep her from skating.
What’s unfortunate is that Tonya Harding was such a good athlete. Everybody said that. She was a very, very unusual female athlete. She could do things that nobody else could do. But she had such an unfortunate early childhood. It really is an American tragedy in some ways. [Harding] said that one of her laces was loose on her skate [during the free skate]. And the judges allowed her to go back into the warm-up area and adjust her skates, which she did. And then before she went back on the ice, she lit up a cigarette.
ROB BURNETT, JAY LENO
Burnett, David Letterman’s executive producer and Late Show’s head writer at the time, says the saga was a gold mine for the show, while Leno likens it to another infamous scandal.
Burnett: I distinctly remember a time that the word “Gillooly” got an automatic huge laugh. You didn’t even need a joke in front of it. It was its own setup and punch line all in one. I was head writer of the show at the time, and the word ‘Gillooly’ was the comedy equivalent of crack cocaine.
Leno: Tonya Harding! She was the Monica Lewinsky [of sports]. What was funnier than all of that? That was a great time!
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