Margot Robbie stars as disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding in upcoming biopic, I, Tonya
Margot Robbie stars as disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding in upcoming biopic, I, Tonya

The real-life crime that inspired a Hollywood story

IT WAS one of the biggest scandals in sporting history - a tale so steeped with intrigue, that 23 years on, it's inspired a major Hollywood movie.

In 1994, the world reacted with horror as images of America's ice-skating sweetheart Nancy Kerrigan flashed across our screens, showing her screaming in pain in the moments after a mystery assailant attacked her with a baton.

It was a calculated attack, aimed at crippling Kerrigan and dashing her Olympics hopes ahead of the national championships.

The shocking crime was made all the more twisted when it emerged that the culprit was the ex-husband of Kerrigan's ice-skating rival, Tonya Harding.

Jeff Gillooly was charged with hiring a hitman, while Harding, 23, was found guilty of conspiracy after the fact.

It made headlines around the world, and old wounds are again being ripped open as we near the release of I, Tonya, a new biopic starring Margot Robbie and Caitlin Carver, telling the sordid tale of a dangerous rivalry that would end up defining two careers.


In the early 1990s, Kerrigan and Harding were both rising stars in the figure skating world, regularly competing against each other in national championships.

In 1991, Harding became the first American woman to land the incredibly rare triple axel, earning her a perfect score and first place at the US Figure Skating Championships. Kerrigan came in third.

But while Harding may have had a slight skills edge, the public adored Kerrigan.

Thanks to her attractive features and charming media presence, she'd managed to rake in huge amounts of money through sponsorship deals with major brands like Campbell's, Revlon and Reebok.

On the ice, Kerrigan was often dressed in Vera Wang - and Harding in outfits she'd made herself.


It was a typically chilly evening in Detroit on January 6, 1994.

Harding and Kerrigan had squeezed in their final practice the night before the US Women's Championships - a competition which would decide who would represent America in the Winter Olympic Games that year.

Kerrigan was preparing to leave the Cobo Arena ice rink after training when she was viciously assaulted by a stranger, who targeted the kneecap on her landing leg.

The horrific moments before and after the attack were caught on tape, and the world would soon be able to witness the shocking scene as Kerrigan lay on the ground in agony, crying and screaming, "Why?"

Later, the doctor who examined the skating star following the assault told The New York Times it was a targeted attack.

"He [the attacker] was clearly trying to debilitate her," Dr Steven Plomaritis said.

While the assailant didn't manage to break any bones, Kerrigan was left bruised and swollen, and with a severe limp.

She was forced to withdraw from the Championships the following day, but her fellow skaters agreed that she deserved one of the two spots on the 1994 Olympics team anyway.

The next day, Harding won first place in the competition and a spot in the Olympics.


The US Olympic Committee wanted to disqualify Harding from the upcoming competition in Lillehammer, Norway, but reluctantly reconsidered when she threatened a $US25 million lawsuit in response.

It set the stage for an incredibly awkward Olympics moment: Kerrigan was forced to share the ice with Harding during practice, and both skaters were actively ignoring the other.

A particularly icy moment on the ice
A particularly icy moment on the ice

In a pointed move, Kerrigan chose to wear the same white lace dress she had on when she was clubbed in the knee - and thanks to the infamous post-attack video, everyone knew it.

That women's figure skating event remains one of the most-watched events in sports history, largely thanks to international interest in Harding and Kerrigan's bitter rivalry.

Kerrigan, at the peak of her popularity due to the added weight of public sympathy, had the best skate of her career and took home the silver medal.

On the other end of the scale, Harding totally choked.

She failed to land her first jump, then started crying and told judges she'd broken a lace during warm-up, which caused her to skate badly. She was granted a second attempt, but still finished in eighth place.


Authorities quickly pinned the crime on Gillooly and two other men - hitman Shane Stant, and Harding's bodyguard, Shawn Eckardt - who were all sentenced to prison.

During the process, they all insisted Harding had known about the attack before it happened, a claim she denies to this day.

"It's a rather monstrous thing to be involved with - the serious injury of a pretty young woman with a promising career," Eckardt's lawyer, Mark McKnight, told reporters on January 14, 1994 after his client had posted bail.

"He is certainly taking responsibility for his role in this."

After denying multiple times that she had any involvement in the attack - even calling the concept "ludicrous" in an interview on January 27, 1994 - Harding tearfully admitted to learning the details of the attack after it occurred, and failing to report it to authorities.

"Many of you will be unable to forgive me for that," she said. "It will be difficult to forgive myself. I know I have let you down, but I have also let myself down. Despite my mistakes and rough edges, I have done nothing to violate the standards of excellence, of sportsmanship, that are expected in an Olympic athlete."

In March 1994, Harding pleaded guilty to hindering the investigation.

She was sentenced to three years' probation, 500 hours of community service, a $160,000 fine, and was stripped of her 1994 national championship win by the US Figure Skating Association and given a lifetime ban from all of their events.


The 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer was the last time either Kerrigan and Harding skated professionally.

And as in their competitive careers, Harding and Kerrigan's post-skating lives couldn't be further apart.

Following Kerrigan's retirement, she was the belle of the ball. She hosted Saturday Night Live, signed a book deal, and appeared on TV and in movies including Skating With Celebrities and Dancing With The Stars, and Will Ferrell's 2007 comedy Blades Of Glory. She married her agent Jerry Solomon and had three kids.

For Harding, it was a very different story.

After becoming a persona non grata in professional skating, she unsuccessfully tried her hand at a number of things: acting, music, wrestling and boxing.

Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding in the film I, Tonya
Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding in the film I, Tonya

In the mid-90s, she and Gillooly sold a sex tape they'd filmed on their wedding night, and stills from it were published in Penthouse magazine.

According to People, in the years following the scandal she was arrested twice - once for DUI, and another for suspicion of domestic violence against her then-boyfriend. She reportedly also attempted suicide.

Harding released biography The Tonya Tapes in 2008 claiming Gillooly had threatened her with rape and other physical violence if she ever spilled the truth about the plot to police.

More than two decades on, Gillooly (who has since changed his name to Jeff Stone) has maintained that Harding knew about the attack all along, despite her firm denials.

"She was the best figure skater - women's figure skater - that ever lived," Stone told Deadspin in 2013. "Still is, in my opinion. We decided to do something really stupid there, and it ruined her. She'll never be remembered for how wonderful a figure skater she was. She'll be remembered for what I talked her into doing."

In 2008, Harding admitted feeling a degree of guilt over the crime.

"Of course I feel guilty for what happened," Harding said. "But I can't dwell. I have to go on living."

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