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‘As crazy as it was’: Reporters recall the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan feeding frenzy

Media surround U.S. figure skating champion Tonya Harding and her lawyer Robert Weaver, after they leave a meeting with FBI officials in Portland, Ore. (AP Photo/Steve Slocum)

The attack unfolded before the television cameras.

Ice skater Nancy Kerrigan, vying for the top spot on the U.S. Winter Olympics team,  was walking off the ice at Detroit’s Cobo Arena on Jan. 6, 1994, when a burly man with a telescopic baton pushed past event staff and whacked her above her right knee.

Kerrigan fell to the floor in pain, crying, “Why me?”

Five days later, when the attack was linked to archrival Tonya Harding and Harding’s live-in ex-husband, the cameras never dispersed. It was a true-crime soap opera surrounding the Winter Olympics’ most prominent sport.

Nearly a quarter century later, the case remains a source of fascination, fueled by the release of the acclaimed Harding bio-pic, “I, Tonya.”

In an ABC News interview this week, Harding admitted to having prior knowledge of the attack on Kerrigan, which was designed to knock her out of the Olympic games a month later in Lillehammer, Norway.

In January, she attended the Golden Globe Awards, where actress Allison Janney thanked Harding for sharing her story as she accepted best supporting actress in “I, Tonya.”

On Sunday night, Janney won an Oscar for best supporting actress for her portrayal of Harding’s relentless mother.

In 1994, as the FBI closed in on Harding’s ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, an anonymous tipster dropped off a letter at the local CBS affiliate’s sports desk, KOIN-TV, that further implicated Gillooly and other members of Harding’s inner circle.

Ann Schatz, then a sports reporter for KOIN, offered to provide Harding a copy of the letter only if she agreed to an on-camera interview. With Gillooly seated just behind Schatz, Harding denied any involvement, but investigators, journalists and ice skating fans were not convinced.

Reporters from all over the world streamed into Clackamas, Ore., Harding’s home town and a rural exurb of Portland. Their goal: flush out the embattled skater and pursue the story that dominated tabloids, network news and national newspapers alike.

Harding hated the traveling media circus that followed her every move. She snuck into the parking lot of Clackamas Town Center, the mall where her practice rink was located, wore a sweatshirt that bore the words, “No Comment!” and implored supporters to “believe in me” as the FBI investigated her involvement in the attack.

She was attacked 50 years ago for being a woman in the Boston Marathon. Then she ran it again at 70.

Some reporters resorted to unethical tricks to feed the rabid demand for images and column inches.

“The locals TV crews and the tabloids needed to see her every day,” recalled Michael Janofsky, a semi-retired former New York Times correspondent. “So they would do all kinds of things like flatten her tires and call the apartment and say, ‘You should know this, but your tires are flat.’ She would come out in cutoff shorts and they’d all get their pictures of her and then she’d run back inside.”

“She radiated the aura of someone who didn’t want to be talked to,” remembered Susan Orlean, a staff writer at the New Yorker, who wrote about the scene in Clackamas. “It was a tug of war between my duty as a journalist and my empathy as a human, which doesn’t always go hand in hand.”

“Once we knew Nancy was okay,” Christine Brennan, now a USA Today sports columnist, then the Olympic reporter for The Washington Post, said in a recent interview, “there wasn’t a day that you didn’t laugh out loud at some of the stuff that was going on.”

Part of the media camp staking out Harding’s apartment tried to have her car towed to force her to appear on camera. Other members dug through the garbage at her house, the mall ice-rink and her coach’s home, Schatz said.

“I will go to my grave thinking my home phone was tapped,” she added. “There were gaps and taps in phone conversations that started happening after I got the letter at the station and called her in for the interview.”

A freelance photographer told Schatz he bugged Harding’s coach’s home. He offered to tell her what the coach’s family was eating for lunch.

Eleven days before the start of the Olympic Games, Gillooly pleaded guilty to racketeering charges in exchange for a lesser sentence. He also told law enforcement Harding knew of the attack plans.

Investigators later revealed Gillooly; Shawn Eckhardt, Harding’s sometimes-bodyguard; and Shane Stant, the “hit man,” considered whether to murder Kerrigan or maim her.

The U.S. Olympic Committee tried to throw Harding, the national champion, off the Olympic team. Harding sued for $25 million dollars to remain on the team.

The committee held a post-midnight news conference the eve of start of the Games to declare she’d be allowed to skate. The same night, a Japanese news crew pulled the fire alarm at the USOC’s hotel to get an interview with committee spokesman Mike Moran. He answered questions past midnight in the hotel lobby in his pajamas.

A week before the pair skated for the gold medal, more than 700 journalists packed the Olympic ice rink to see Harding and Kerrigan practice side by side. Sports Illustrated calculated that the closest the two skaters came in passing was 31 inches.

Norwegian security guards openly debated whether Harding should skate in the games or bow out.

“Even if she is not guilty, I think she should not come,” one told Brennan, the Post reporter. “Wouldn’t that be the right thing to do?”

Four days before the figure skating competition, Julie Vader and Abby Haight, reporters for the Oregonian, published “Fire on Ice,” a Harding biography.

They wrote the book over a long weekend hidden away in the smoking room of the paper’s office, Vader said. (Neither of them smoked. Harding, an asthmatic, did.)

“The Super Bowl was in Atlanta that year,” Vader said, “and when I was there, everyone kept asking me, ‘Why are you here? Why are you here? The real story is back there.’ ”

Hours before the Olympic final, Journalists from the New York Times (not Janofsky), the Detroit Free Press and the San Jose Mercury News hacked into Harding’s email account.

That evening, Harding skated onto the ice unprepared. She failed to pack extra laces for her skates on the trip to Norway and inevitably, one of them ripped while Harding dressed for the routine. She tearfully begged judges to allow her to restart her program. They obliged, but she came out flat and fell to eighth.

Two weeks after the end of the Games, Harding would plead guilty to conspiring to hinder prosecution, admitting she knew about the assault only afterward and refused to tell law enforcement. She was sentenced to three years probation and a $160,000 fine.

But in Lillehammer, she watched Kerrigan skate the program of her life. Kerrigan left the rink to standing ovation and flowers cast onto the ice. A gold medal seemed assured, but Ukrainian 16-year-old Oksana Baiul edged her for the top spot by a tenth of a point.

The German on the nine-judge panel scored Baiul a 5.9 for artistic merit and gave Kerrigan a 5.8.

Worldwide, tabloids heralded Harding’s drubbing.

“Few Tears, No Blood as Snow White Beats Poison Dwarf,” the Irish Times declared.

“A perfect Lutz, a total klutz,” screamed the New York Daily News.

“Beauty crushes the Beast,” proclaimed Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet.

“This,” Brennan said, “might be the one story in the 20th century that did not need Twitter or Facebook to make it as crazy as it was.”

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