Class issues in ice-skating as shown in the film I, Tonya (2017)

I was never a fan of ice-skating, an event whose appeal eludes me and whose inclusion as a sport in the Olympics mystifies me. But it is hugely popular, though perhaps less so now than about two-decades ago. But like everyone else, I heard about the infamous event in which Nancy Kerrigan was attacked during the US trials to select the team in 1994 when an assailant came and hit her on the legs with a baton. She recovered enough to make the team and win a silver medal. A rival skater Tonya Harding was accused of being behind the attack and she came eighth after a mishap with her laces. This film is Harding’s story though, as with all biopics, one has to be wary of its accuracy.

TThe attack created a media circus when it turned out that Harding’s ex-husband Jeff Gillooly was involved somehow in the attack. That story got pushed out of the front pages only when the Nicole Brown Simpson murder occurred. The details of what exactly happened and Harding’s own role in the attack were never made clear though she was convicted of conspiring to hide the facts and banned from skating under the auspices of the ruling body. I watched the film I, Tonya that is based on interviews with the various people involved: Harding (played by Margot Robbie), her mother (played by Allison Janney who won an Academy Award for her performance), her coach, Gillooly, and her self-appointed bodyguard. Apparently they had conflicting recollections and the filmmakers played the story largely for laughs (with the actors occasionally breaking the fourth wall and providing commentary to the camera), though the story is in many ways a sad one.

Harding was the classic ‘wrong side of the tracks’ person, whose parents split when she was young, following which she was raised by the mother from hell. Physical abuse and violence was a daily part of her turbulent life, both from her mother and her husband. But it was not only that she was from a poor family that held her back because Kerrigan also came from modest means. But Harding was tough and profane and lacked the image of sweet gentility that the ice-skating world seems to want from its champions, and she had a tough time getting the skating rewards she felt she deserved. She could not adequately hide class background and it was like a millstone round her neck, dragging her down despite her skating skills.

In the film, the whole plot against Kerrigan is shown as a bumbling effort by her ex-husband, her dopey, delusional, and self-aggrandizing bodyguard, and his even dopier associates, that went totally awry. While it was pretty funny in parts, especially the scenes involving the inept plotters, you never stopped feeling sorry for Harding, seeking so desperately to be loved by fans and to achieve the success and recognition that she felt she deserved but never got, despite being the first American woman to pull of the difficult triple axel in as international competition.

Here’s the trailer.


  1. says

    I was never a fan of ice-skating, an event whose appeal eludes me…

    Says the cricket fan. 😀

    But seriously, the appeal of sports in general eludes me, but I do enjoy dancing and have enjoyed the beauty of figure skating because of the dance aspect. I’d probably enjoy it even more if they took out the competitive aspect of it though. I’d rather see a really well choreographed routine instead of however many spins are considered necessary for points.

  2. jrkrideau says

    @ 1 Tabby Lavalamp
    figure skating.
    Thanks TL. I was going to point out that ice skating (is there any other kind?) is not figure skating.

    I am not a devotee of figure skating but it can be beautiful to watch. A a good curling competition is more riveting.

    I tend to think that figure skating is what ballet aspires to be. Sod the running around on tippy-toe. Get your skates on and glide properly.

  3. Canadian Steve says

    @2 jrkrideau -- there is roller skating, and ski -- skating so yes, there are other kinds of skating.

    more generally:
    The sheer athleticism of figure skating warrants its inclusion in the olympics. The moves they accomplish are incredible feats of strength and balance. If things like jumping over a bar and throwing a heavy ball count as sports, surely figure skating is more deserving than those.

  4. mnb0 says

    “I was never a fan of ice-skating”
    That’s obvious -- others already have pointed out your error. Some visuals:
    this is figure skating.

    ie ballet on skates.
    This is ice skating.

    ie as fast as possible on an ice rink of 400 m. Probably the greatest ice skater ever is Eric Heiden.
    This is short track.

    ie also as fast as possible, but in a very different format.
    If the inclusion of figure skating in the Olympics mystifies you I suppose the inclusion of gymnastics mystifies you as well.
    If the inclusion of ice skating and short track mystifies you I suppose the inclusion of 100 m and 10 km running mystifies you too.
    Like many Dutch I enjoy watching long distance ice skating. It’s incredibly hard to maintain the same pace on the 10 km. So it was amazing to watch

    who invariably skated the last 5 km faster than the first 5 km. Very, very few skaters can do that.

  5. jrkrideau says

    @ Canadian Steve
    roller skating, and ski
    Nothing but vile attempts at gaining legitimacy!

  6. jrkrideau says

    @ Canadian Steve
    Clicked too soon. I agree about the inclusion in the Olympics.

  7. Holms says

    #4 “If the inclusion of figure skating in the Olympics mystifies you I suppose the inclusion of gymnastics mystifies you as well.”

    Yes to this part! I mistrust any event where winning cannot be measured as such, but must be judged by a panel. I prefer events and sports where winning and losing can be known to anyone watching the event, rather than having to wait for someone else to tell me how well each entrant did.

  8. Mano Singham says

    I agree with Holms. When the contestant’s appearance, personality, and what they wear are part of the scoring system, that makes it even worse for me.

  9. snuffcurry says

    It’s fine to prefer to democratize competitive athletics, but you’re really advocating for the death of expertise and the excision of art from professional sport. Yes, judges understand form and technique better than the average viewer, and the average viewer frequently overestimates his (emphasis on his) grasp of the mechanics of the performance before him, which is why nearly every cinema-goer knows which picture ought to win the award but not which cinematographer nor why. They’re often wrong on both counts, of course, and fail to recognize that their own subjective enthusiasm does not make up for their own ignorance. But everybody’s an expert, I guess.

    When the contestant’s appearance, personality, and what they wear are part of the scoring system, that makes it even worse for me.

    I’d review judging standards for ISU sanctioned events if you sincerely believe figure skating and ice dancing are scored on wardrobe or looks.

  10. secondtofirstworld says

    I have 2 points of contention here, and both are related to having class. When Harding and Kerrigan were but little girls, the cold war was literally fought in the winter Olympics in venues largely dominated by reds due to the climate befitting their territories. The Western response was becoming more stylish, never more so in a society where whiteness equals wealth. I, Tonya is way more about “shut up about you being an impoverished white” than about the struggles of poor people. Tennis was the same way before McEnroe showed up.

    It’s ironic, but the lead actress and producer Robbie was unaware this actually did happen (also a quick shout out to the fact that nowadays all American blonde girls in movies are portrayed by Aussies). It borders on virtual impossibility to try and create an actual class struggle movie within the same ethnicity (or race if you prefer that outdated term). The actually poorest community in the US is a Hasidic Jewish one in upstate New York, yet 9 out of 10 people identify poor with the projects.

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