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Challenging Behavior in Young Children

 

    Selected Work by Judy Sklar Rasminsky
   
   

Tonya Harding: The Real Story of the 1994 Olympics

The Gazette, Montreal, February 14, 1994
Op-ed, 900 words

Like many Canadians, I am a figure-skating addict with a taste for soap opera, and I have watched each new episode of the Tonya Harding story with horror and fascination.

But I can’t say that I am shocked. As the parent of a young competitive athlete, now retired, I have seen and heard far too much. The truth be told, I am relieved to see it in the open at last.

These images haunt me:

  • The mother who, after seeing her 8-year-old daughter make a mistake in a gymnastics routine, said to her, in front of friends, coaches, and parents, “You think you’re the best, but you’re a piece of garbage.”
  • The coach who didn’t want to excuse a young skater from a competition when her father died.
  • The rhythmic gymnast, weighed every week in the gym, who ended up in the Children’s Hospital with anorexia.

These pictures are a perfect match for the ones in a video made when Tonya Harding was 14. She was phoning to tell her mother that she had placed sixth in her first major competition.

It was clear from Tonya’s responses that her mother was saying, “You really screwed up, didn’t you?”

No matter what happens in Lillehammer, whether she skates or not, Tonya Harding is the real story of the 1994 Olympics—the story of just how hard an athlete has to fight to get there, how much she and those around her have to want to win, how much cheating, politicking, abuse, and violence go on behind the scenes to make or break a winner.

We don’t permit ourselves to see this story because it’s so ugly. We were appalled by Ben Johnson at Seoul in 1988, and though we became more cynical about amateur sports for a time, we never did face the truth.

We don’t want to face it now either. We would prefer to conjure up Nancy Kerrigan’s almost blind mother with her nose pressed up against the television screen.

But the nastiness that is so overt in Tonya Harding’s case lies hidden in the life of virtually every Olympian, and inside the lives of our young athletes, too. Even the 6- and 7-year-olds we enroll so casually in community hockey, soccer and gymnastics programs often get a good-sized dose of it.

A little taste of what we all encounter in the real world probably doesn’t harm them. In fact, a small amount—like an inoculation against measles—may even enable them to build up the resources and skills to cope later on.

But to win big, you have to want to win desperately, and part of wanting to win is being ruthless—with yourself, with your opponents, and for a coach, with the athletes.

Nice guys finish last, as they say. Even schools that emphasize self-esteem, progressing at your own pace, and competing with yourself sometimes have coaches who don’t let everyone play if winning the game means sticking with their starting line-up.

In a sports club whose reputation (and ability to attract students and funding) depends on producing winners, the coaches will always have favorites to whom they give more time and more personal attention, to say nothing of more innovative moves and more opportunities to compete. In sports where judging is subjective, politics is rampant. Sports associations and federations play these games with the best of them.

Parents get sucked in, too, because there is no high quite like seeing your own child win. Many of us would happily send a son away from home to play with a AAA hockey team and have a shot at the NHL.

When young athletes go to the gym or the rink, they aren’t learning just walkovers, Axels and slap shots. They are breathing, swallowing, bathing in a way of looking at the world.

They see what counts here. They see that some get caviar and others get crumbs. If they are successful, they quickly learn that winning at the club level, or the municipal level, or the provincial level, or even the national level is never enough. Athletes who win silver at the Olympics still feel like losers. They learn that even the people at the top are ultimately replaceable—there is always someone younger and stronger coming up behind.

Tonya Harding is 23 years old. She looks back and sees Michelle Kwan, age 13, hard on her heels. Unlike many serious amateur athletes, Tonya doesn’t come from an affluent, supportive, two-parent family. For her, the ice has always meant opportunity. This is her last chance to win fame and fortune, the last chance to escape the trap she was born into, the last chance to show that she isn’t the failure her waitress mother has always believed her to be.

Tonya knew what was required to achieve her goal: surrounded by professional coaches, she has been absorbing the lessons of the arena since the age of 3. What she or those around her failed to understand was that the packaging is crucial. They didn’t realize that the velvet glove is just as important as the iron fist inside it.

But we spectators shouldn’t delude ourselves. The iron fist, whether naked or clothed, packs a powerful wallop. Is this what we want for our children?

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Copyright © 1994 by Judy Sklar Rasminsky. This material may not be reproduced in any manner or medium without written permission. For information, contact jud...@challengingbehavior.com.

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