The Real Story of the 1994 Olympics
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 cant 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:
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 Tonyas responses that her
mother was saying, You really screwed up, didnt 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 dont permit ourselves
to see this story because its 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 dont want to face it
now either. We would prefer to conjure up Nancy Kerrigans
almost blind mother with her nose pressed up against the television
But the nastiness that is so
overt in Tonya Hardings 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 doesnt 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
dont let everyone play if winning the game means sticking
with their starting line-up.
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
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 arent 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
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 doesnt 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 isnt 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 didnt realize that the velvet glove is just
as important as the iron fist inside it.
But we spectators shouldnt
delude ourselves. The iron fist, whether naked or clothed, packs
a powerful wallop. Is this what we want for our children?
- 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 youre
the best, but youre a piece of garbage.
- The coach who didnt 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 Childrens Hospital with
here to return to a list of Judy’s work.
Copyright © 1991 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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