Tom Sorensen

All these years later, disgraced Olympian Tonya Harding still excites us. Here’s why.

A figure skater, Tonya Harding, left, was never an ice princess. In this March 12, 1991, file photo, American skaters, from left, Harding, silver; Kristi Yamaguchi, gold; and Nancy Kerrigan, bronze, display their medals after the finals of the World Figure Skating Championships in Munich.
A figure skater, Tonya Harding, left, was never an ice princess. In this March 12, 1991, file photo, American skaters, from left, Harding, silver; Kristi Yamaguchi, gold; and Nancy Kerrigan, bronze, display their medals after the finals of the World Figure Skating Championships in Munich. AP File Photo

You, Tanya:

We’re talking, the high school football coach and me. Do you have a player, I ask, who shows up early and leaves late and volunteers for everything? The player doesn’t have to be good.

Tom Knotts, then the fine coach at Charlotte Independence, smiles. He has the player.

The player is a receiver, undersized, even more undersized than Knotts knows because the player lied about his weight. Before we talk in the Independence locker room, I switch on my digital recorder and realize it is full. There are big names on here, I tell the player, and I need to erase them.

“Like who?” he asks.

Steve Smith, I say. Jake Delhomme. Tonya Harding. I figure the player will be excited about Smith, who also is a receiver and also is undersized.

The player gets excited.

“Tonya Harding!” he yells.

Tonya Harding excites people. We want to know what she’s doing, and why. I’m interested. I’m not interested enough to go to the theater and see the big-budget movie about her, “I Tonya.” But when it shows up on cable, I’ll watch.

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Tonya Harding excites people. We want to know what she’s doing, and why. Scott Kirkland/PictureGroup TNS

A figure skater, Harding was never an ice princess. At 5-1 with muscles, she was built more like a goalie. She had success in her world, but we care about her world only once every four years. She entered our world when her ex-husband sent an associate to assault her rival. The man attempted to break Nancy Kerrigan’s knee. This was 1993, the year before the Lillehammer Olympics.

The knee was bruised but not broken, and Kerrigan finished second in Lillehammer. Harding finished eighth.

Harding denied knowing about the attack on Kerrigan but pleaded guilty to hindering the prosecution. The U.S. Figure Skating Association banned her for life.

It could deny her the ice, but it couldn’t ban her name or her fame. Harding capitalized by doing everything but caddy for John Daly. She wrestled, sang, did a TV show and boxed. She finished with a pro record of 3-3.

Harding is 47 now, married and with a son. Despite the positive attention the movie has conferred, Harding remains, well, Harding. She told her agent/publicist that she wanted reporters to sign an affidavit saying that they would not ask about her past, and if they did they would be fined $25,000. As we know around Charlotte, silence is tough to buy. The contrived fine obviously would be unenforceable, and the agent/publicist quit.

We care about Harding because her story is so unlikely. The other athletes that remind you of her are? There’s nobody. And even without blades, her story refuses to end.

If she passes through Charlotte again, we’ll talk to her – press, TV and radio. We’ll talk to her even if we don’t have $25,000 in the bank.

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I’m not interested enough to go to the theater and see the big-budget movie about Tonya Harding, starring Margo Robbie, above. But when “I, Tonya” shows up on cable, I’ll watch. AP

Tom Sorensen is a retired Charlotte Observer columnist. Sign up for his newsletter, and follow him on Twitter: @tomsorensen

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