Surely Tonya Harding was one of the last great pre-internet tabloid sensations, an unlikely headliner in a tacky saga of criminal intentions and bad taste. Before the internet, a jaw-dropping scandal like Harding’s could linger for a while, instead of being instantly elbowed aside by Twitter outrage or the latest meme. The drama unfolded in 1994, when an assailant hit figure skater Nancy Kerrigan in the leg with an iron bar; rumors flew that Harding, Kerrigan’s rival, had something to do with the attack. At the Olympics a few weeks later, both Kerrigan (bruised but not broken) and Harding competed amid a swirl of bizarre headlines about Harding’s fantastically trashy ex-husband Jeff Gillooly and his beefy, sage-like sidekick Shawn Eckhardt. Gillooly and Eckhardt did jail time for planning the attack; Harding has always maintained she wasn’t in on it. The crime was lurid enough, but the story had multiple levels, including economic: Harding was a blue-collar kid who sewed her own costumes out of financial necessity, a contrast to Kerrigan’s movie-star looks and classy commercial endorsements.
The movie version of this tale, I, Tonya, works hard to suggest why we might sympathize with Harding: her poverty, the abuse she suffered from her husband and her mother, the snooty condescension of skating’s top brass.