Tonya Harding Is Banned from Skating After Attack on Rival

At the 1994 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, an unknown assailant clubbed skater Nancy Kerrigan on her knee after a practice session. Although Kerrigan had to withdraw from the event, she was still named to the U.S. Olympic team. The former husband of 1994 champion Tonya Harding claimed that he had hired Kerrigan’s assailant, touching off a heavily publicized scandal. Harding competed in the Olympics but was later stripped of her national title and banned from sanctioned skating events.

Summary of Event

The 1994 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, held at the Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, Michigan, was a qualifying event for the coming Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway. The United States had qualified to send two skaters for the ladies skating event, so the top two finishers at the championships would receive automatic spots on the U.S. Olympic team. Nancy Kerrigan, a bronze medalist at the 1992 Olympics in Albertville, France, and the reigning U.S. national champion, was the favorite to win the event for the second year in a row. Tonya Harding, the 1991 U.S. national champion and second-place finisher in the 1991 World Championships, was her main rival. [kw]Harding Is Banned from Skating After Attack on Rival, Tonya (June 30, 1994)
[kw]Skating After Attack on Rival, Tonya Harding Is Banned from (June 30, 1994)
Harding, Tonya
Kerrigan, Nancy
Figure skating
Olympics;figure skating
Harding, Tonya
Kerrigan, Nancy
Figure skating
Olympics;figure skating
[g]United States;June 30, 1994: Tonya Harding Is Banned from Skating After Attack on Rival[02670]
[c]Sports;June 30, 1994: Tonya Harding Is Banned from Skating After Attack on Rival[02670]
[c]Corruption;June 30, 1994: Tonya Harding Is Banned from Skating After Attack on Rival[02670]
[c]Violence;June 30, 1994: Tonya Harding Is Banned from Skating After Attack on Rival[02670]
[c]Law and the courts;June 30, 1994: Tonya Harding Is Banned from Skating After Attack on Rival[02670]
Gillooly, Jeff
Stant, Shane
Eckardt, Shawn

At approximately 2:35 p.m. on January 6, 1994, Kerrigan stepped behind a curtain separating the ice rink from a back hallway leading to the locker rooms after a practice session at nearby Cobo Arena. She stopped briefly to speak with a reporter when a then-unknown assailant rushed by and struck her on the right knee with a blunt baton similar to those used by police officers. Kerrigan fell to the ground crying, as reporters and skating personnel gathered around. Her attacker disappeared in the confusion. Kerrigan was taken to nearby Hutzel Hospital, where she was diagnosed with severe muscle and tissue bruising. She was forced to withdraw from the competition. Harding won the event and Michelle Kwan won second place. The U.S. Figure Skating Association Figure Skating Association, U.S. (USFSA) named Kerrigan to the team, along with Harding, and named Kwan the alternate. The attack on Kerrigan received widespread publicity, and speculation began immediately as to who was behind the attack.

Harding’s bodyguard, Shawn Eckardt, was arrested in Portland, Oregon, on January 13. He informed the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) that Harding’s former husband, Jeff Gillooly, had orchestrated the attack. Also arrested in the conspiracy was Derrick B. Smith. Shane Stant, a bounty hunter and former convict, was charged with the actual attack on Kerrigan and surrendered to police in Phoenix, Arizona, on January 14. Gillooly surrendered to Portland police on January 19.

Tonya Harding, left, and Nancy Kerrigan at a training session at the 1994 Winter Olympics in Norway.

(Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Questions about Harding’s role in the attack grew with every passing day. She held a press conference in Portland on January 27, admitting that she learned of the conspiracy to attack Kerrigan after the fact and failed to report what she knew to investigators. She maintained that she had no prior knowledge of the attack and did not help in its planning. On February 1, Gillooly pleaded guilty to his role in the conspiracy and reached a plea bargain. He confessed to racketeering charges only. In exchange, he promised authorities that he would implicate Harding.

The negative publicity and allegations against Harding led the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) to seek a way to keep her from participating in the Olympics. She appeared before the USOC’s administrative board to respond to charges that she violated its athletic code, but the board ultimately voted to let her skate because she had not been formally charged with a crime. She also threatened to sue the committee if it prohibited her participation.

The Olympics began in mid-February, and both Harding and Kerrigan stayed in the Olympic Village during their time away from the ice arena. Both skaters were hounded by the media as they skated at the same practice sessions. Further drama erupted on February 17, when Kerrigan arrived at practice wearing the same white lace practice dress she had been wearing when she was attacked. On February 25, she had a nearly flawless performance and won the silver medal behind Ukrainian skater Oksana Baiul in a controversial 5-4 split of the nine-judge panel. Harding finished a disappointing eighth after tearfully requesting that the judges let her restart her program when one of the laces on her skate broke.

After the Olympics, Harding pleaded guilty in Portland to conspiracy to hinder prosecution for her role in covering up the attack. She was not charged with helping to plan the attack and has always maintained her innocence. She received a fine, probation, and orders to perform community service, but no jail sentence. On June 30, the USFSA stripped Harding of her 1994 national title and banned her for life from USFSA-sanctioned events. She could still skate in professional events, but many of the top professional skaters would not skate with her. She would later take up the sport of professional boxing. Boxing;Tonya Harding[Harding] Gillooly, Eckardt, and Stant would all serve prison sentences for their roles in the attack. Kerrigan became a professional skater, married, and had two sons.


The scandal tarnished figure skating’s image, but at the same time it greatly increased its popularity. Television ratings for skating events soared, resulting in new skating shows, competitions, and television specials. Increased advertising revenue and ticket sales brought new money into the sport that could be invested in its development. Rising skating stars such as Kwan built on the popularity brought by the scandal. Sports reporter Brennan, Christine Christine Brennan once joked that all skaters should send a thank-you card to Harding for the benefits they have reaped in the scandal’s aftermath. The publicity also exposed the inner, competitive world of figure skating and led many to question the treatment of Harding as a skater before the attack; she did not fit the traditional stereotype of the female skater as an “ice princess.”

The attack on Kerrigan came less than one year after tennis star Monica Seles Seles, Monica was stabbed in the back by an obsessed “fan” during a break in an April, 1993, match in Germany. Although Seles recovered physically, the stabbing was a tragedy that, like the Harding-Kerrigan case, helped to raise awareness about the need for heightened security at all athletic events. Harding, Tonya
Kerrigan, Nancy
Figure skating
Olympics;figure skating

Further Reading

  • Baughman, Cynthia, ed. Women on Ice: Feminist Essays on the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan Spectacle. New York: Routledge, 1995. Examines the scandal from the perspective of gender politics. Discusses how mass media stereotypes of female ice skaters affected how the media covered the scandal and the public’s image of Tonya Harding, who did not fit the stereotype of the traditional, ultrafeminine figure skater.
  • Brennan, Christine. Inside Edge: A Revealing Journey into the Secret World of Figure Skating. New York: Scribner, 1996. A longtime sports reporter’s detailed account of backstage politics during the 1994 and 1995 skating seasons. Includes discussion of the Kerrigan attack and its aftermath.
  • Kerrigan, Nancy. Nancy Kerrigan: In My Own Words. New York: Hyperion Books, 1996. A work written especially for young readers. Provides the skater’s firsthand account of the attack and surrounding media scandal as well as a retelling of her life and career.
  • Prouse, Linda D. The Tonya Tapes: The Tonya Harding Story In Her Own Words. New York: World Audience, 2008. Based on several interviews with Harding, this tell-all book explores Harding’s life from her younger years through her life following professional figure skating. An authorized biography.
  • Rowe, David. “Apollo Undone: The Sports Scandal.” In Media Scandals, edited by James Lull and Stephen Hinerman. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998. Examines the social impact of sports scandals, such as the Kerrigan attack, which receive much media attention.

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