Wednesday, June 20, 2018
Sports

Two decades after whack, figure skating struggles

Tonya and Nancy.

Mention those names to figure skating fans — or even to those with little interest in the sport — and there's immediate recognition.

"Ah, the whack on the knee.''

"Oh, yeah, the 'Why me? Why me?' cries.''

"Sure, the scandal.''

It has been 20 years since Nancy Kerrigan was clubbed after practice in Detroit before the U.S. Championships by a member of a bumbling goon squad hired by Tonya Harding's then-husband with the hope of eliminating Harding's top competition for the 1994 Olympic team.

The assault led to a soap opera that practically created tabloid television journalism and pushed what had for decades been a niche sport squarely into the media mainstream. The attention was a boon for the sport.

That surge in popularity lasted for the rest of the 1990s.

Today, skating is back in the niche realm. Attention and money have dwindled. It's a desperate time in particular for figure skating in the United States, which has its national championships — the final Olympic qualifying event — beginning today in Boston.

The United States' biggest medal hope for next month's Games at Sochi, Russia, are ice dancers Meryl Davis and Charlie White, the 2010 silver medalists and reigning world champions.

No American man or pairs team is expected to challenge for a medal. Reigning American women's champion Ashley Wagner said she would have to be nearly flawless to reach the podium in Sochi. A shutout in men's and women's singles would be the first for the United States since 1936.

"I look at where the sport is now and it is too bad that it has swung so far the other way," Kerrigan said of its attention level. "It tends to reinforce some people's perception that what happened to me was good for skating, and that is just not right. Attacking an opponent for personal gain can never be seen as a good thing.''

Kerrigan said it would have been better if a well-organized pro circuit had been created during that peak in popularity.

Scott Hamilton — the 1984 gold medalist who created the Stars On Ice tour after his Olympic win in part because he would have been unemployed without it — knew the positive impact would be fleeting. A big reason was the International Skating Union opted to invest money not in tours but in keeping skaters in the Olympic-eligible competitions it controls.

"When it is all about competition, the rock star part of the sport no longer exists and the scale tips so far the wrong way, you don't have anything left to turn to," Hamilton said.

The current U.S. men's talent pool was hurt when 2010 gold medalist Evan Lysacek was sidelined by injuries. Fighting for the two available men's Olympic spots are three-time national champ Jeremy Abbott, Max Aaron, Adam Rippon and Ross Miner.

No U.S. women medaled in 2010, the first time that had happened since 1964, and none has made an Olympic or world championship podium since 2006. (The top American Olympian in 2010 was Mirai Nagasu in fourth.)

"The U.S. ladies team needs a medalist," Wagner said. "For this sport to be able to survive and keep going on, we need a medalist. We need that for interest in the sport."

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