How Tonya, Nancy helped their sport

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Twenty years ago this month, a man named Shane Stant attempted to boost Tonya Harding's Olympic hopes by whacking rival Nancy Kerrigan's right knee with a metal baton during the 1994 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Detroit.

Kerrigan clutched her knee and famously cried, "Why me?" Detroit police and the FBI launched an investigation to answer that question, while Kerrigan and Harding both went to the Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway … followed closely by Connie Chung, the National Enquirer and the rest of the world's media.

Before the saga ended, Stant, associate Shawn Eckhardt and Harding's former husband, Jeff Gillooly, would be imprisoned for the attack. Harding would plead guilty to obstructing the investigation, be fined $160,000 and be banned from skating. The scandal would become so notorious that it would inspire a novel, an opera, a parody in a "Seinfeld" episode, lyrics in a Weird Al Yankovic song and even a 2007 campaign speech reference by President Barack Obama.

The attack was sordid and despicable and reprehensible to the spirit of sport … and absolutely terrific for figure skating.

When Kerrigan and Harding finally met in the women's short program at Lillehammer, the showdown became the highest-rated sporting event in the United States and the third-highest for any TV programming (see infographic below). Money soon flowed into the sport as networks capitalized on its popularity by airing made-for-TV competitions such as "Ice Wars," "Skates of Gold" and the "Rock 'n' Roll Skating Championships." National touring shows "Champions on Ice" and "Stars on Ice" sold out arenas throughout the year while reportedly paying the skaters up to $15,000 a night.

Silver medalist Elvis Stojko remembers even skating on a beach in California for one show called "Too Hot to Skate."

"They put ice on the beach, and it stayed for part of the day at least, and we skated out there," he said. "In the evening, we had a rink on a pier. It was sold out, and it was crazy."

How popular was the sport then? There were fantasy skating leagues.

"Figure skating became the super sport," longtime coach Frank Carroll said. "Everyone wanted to watch it. They had made-up shows on television. They had competitions. All the people who turned professional had work. Michelle Kwan rode the crest of that and made millions and millions of dollars a year for just skating, and that lasted for 10 years, her whole life in the sport."

All of this also brought more young skaters into the sport. "Everyone wanted to do it," Carroll said. "Everyone wanted to be Michelle Kwan."

One of those aspiring young skaters was Sarah Hughes, who grew up to beat Kwan for the gold medal at the 2002 Olympics. Hughes says all the touring shows helped by allowing her to frequently see the world's skaters display their talent and techniques.

"It brought a lot more skating right in front of my face live," Hughes said. "It was very inspirational, and it was aspirational. I would think, 'Maybe one day I can do what they're doing.'"

While it was the Tonya-Nancy affair that fully ignited the figure skating craze, the sport had already been poised for takeoff. Scott Hamilton and Katarina Witt raised popularity at the 1984 Olympics, and it increased with the Dueling Carmens (Witt and Debi Thomas, who both skated to music from the "Carmen" opera in their long programs) and the Battle of the Brians (Boitano and Orser) at the 1988 Games in Calgary, Alberta.

That, plus the quality of that era's skaters, helped maintain the sport's popularity even after Kerrigan and Harding.

"A lot of it had to do with introducing skating to an audience that had not watched it, but to hold on to that audience, you had to be good," Boitano said. "It had to be something they wanted to watch. Those years were fantastic. Remember the 1970s and there were all the tennis greats, like Bjorn Borg? We had that same thing. We had all of us. The public liked all of us, and we traveled together and we performed together. It was a group effort -- it's not one person who can make a sport popular. It's a group.

"And that's what we don't have now."

Said Hughes, "When you're a young skater now, you don't really get to see people at the top of their sport." 

Indeed, Tom Collins, who owned the "Champions on Ice" tour, said bookings dropped from 100 dates a year at the peak of the skating craze to about 25 a year before he sold the tour in 2006 to Anschutz Entertainment Group (which closed the U.S. tour in 2007). In comparison to the Tonya-Nancy ratings, Saturday's women's final at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships drew a mere 0.7 rating.

What happened? Collins wonders whether figure skating simply oversaturated fans with all the shows in the '90s.

"I just wonder if maybe we didn't jam things down the American public's throat, beginning with TV almost every night," Collins said. "With the same skaters, the same costumes, the same music, the same choreography, it was just such a glut of skating on TV.

"Twenty years later, skating is having an extremely hard time now. It isn't what it used to be. It's pretty sad in a way."

That could very well be part of it, but much of the blame is due to the scoring system that was brought in after the 2002 Olympics judging scandal. Designed to eliminate cheating, the system is so complicated that you don't need "Figure Skating for Dummies" to understand it; you need "Figure Skating for Google and NASA Engineers."

Before, everyone knew the best score was a 6.0, but now, only the most obsessive fans can understand the scoring. Before the 2010 Olympics, Carroll acknowledged even he didn't know what a good score was for a short program. "I'm squinting like this and the marks come up and [men's figure skater] Evan [Lysacek] will say, 'My God, that's great!' and I'll think, 'Is it?'"

Worse, although the new scoring system is fairer to skaters, Stojko says it has hurt the sport by homogenizing the skaters and taking away the personalities.

"Now, everything has to be the same. You can put on any music to these programs," he said. "It's hard to stop and catch a moment, to take a breath and pull in the audience, and show a character and show personality -- and that's what people love."

With all the moves, jumps and footwork required to boost point totals, skaters simply don't have the room for something like Philippe Candeloro's electrifying sword-fight routine at the 1998 Nagano Olympics. The sport has become skating by numbers.

Jason Brown brought the crowd to its feet with a stirring Irish dance routine at U.S. nationals this past weekend, but even he could go only so far with his choreography.

"I don't know what will happen to skating. I really don't," Collins said. "What bothers me most about it now is there is nowhere for the skaters to go. Where does Gracie Gold go to make money? If she wins gold at the Olympics, where does she go to make money to pay her parents back? They have nowhere to go now. Maybe there are some endorsements, but it's nothing compared to what it once was.

"I feel sorry for them."

With so much competition from other sports and entertainment options, figure skating will never return to the popularity it had following Tonya and Nancy. But its popularity could rise again if the sport takes requisite measures.

The scoring must be revised to bring personality and creativity back into the routines. A top mark -- the equivalent of a 6.0 -- must somehow be determined to help fans follow and understand the scoring. Career rewards must be such that skaters remain in the sport long enough for fans to get to really know and like them (or draft them for a fantasy team).

And if none of that happens or helps, well, then, is it possible to get Tonya and Nancy together on the rink for a true "Ice Wars"? (Batons optional.)

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