Maybe the world should have some sympathy for Tonya Harding


Rebecca Beckas

With the Winter Olympics upon us, it’s only appropriate to reflect back on one of the most popular scandals of it’s time, especially considering the anniversary of the incident recently passed. After spending a week doing a research project for sociology, and then watching two hours of what I would consider Margot Robbie’s best work yet, I think Tonya Harding does not deserve the sentence she was given, not only Judge Donald H. Londer, but also by the world.

I understand the Hollywood Biopic “I, Tonya” is not completely accurate, and there are flaws. For example, it is concerning to me that it places full blame on Shawn Eckardt, yet he had no way to defend himself since he died in 2007.  Even so, he did plead guilty. Another discrepancy is that there are clearly fictional scenes in the movie, such as when Tonya yells some obscenities at the judges of the USFSA,  but I don’t think it changes the validity of the events and story that actually occurred.

When I studied Harding, the goal of the project was to determine if she was a product of nature or nurture, and I have to believe everything she ended up involved in was an indisputable result of the way she was nurtured. I’m not saying what happened to Nancy Kerrigan was justified, right, or even forgivable, but I also can’t help but feel sympathy after what I have learned about her.

Starting from a young age, Harding’s family life was not ideal, and one to be worried about. The family lived in Portland, Oregon, in poverty, living in a trailer in a driveway. Her parents got divorced when she was 16. Even though he had left the family, Tonya described her dad as her best friend and biggest supporter. His obituary even stated, “One of his greatest joys in life was watching his daughter, Tonya, ice skate. He was always so proud of her.” While this relationship between the father and daughter was wholesome, Tonya’s relationship with her mother was a complete 180.

I believe there are multiple villains in this story, the first being Tonya’s mother, LaVona Golden. This woman was a triple threat; emotionally, verbally, and physically abusive. While she pushed her daughter to work harder and be perfect on the ice, she manipulated and hit Tonya countless times. What I thought was a fictional scene filmed purely for entertainment purposes actually turned out to be real, when LaVona throws a steak knife and hits her daughter.

It’s no wonder that Tonya moved out of the house at such an early age and despised her mother. I find it heartbreaking that the family was so poor that LaVona would find old cans to get refunds on them just to make money to fund Tonya’s skating lessons and would sew her skating costumes, but my sympathy runs out when I remember how cruel LaVona was in blaming Tonya for things that weren’t her fault as well as obviously causing her emotional and physical pain.

When Tonya was a teenager she was sexually assualted by her half brother, whom she reported to the cops, but when asked about the situation, LaVona said, “Tonya has a vivid imagination. She has a tendency to tell tall tales.”

There were two scenes in this movie where I teared up: one being the scene where LaVona goes to Tonya’s house to apologize to her for years of discouragement and pressure and to even say she’s proud of her. What seems like a beautiful bonding moment between the two is then turned sour, as when LaVona asks Tonya if she committed the crime, Tonya realizes LaVona is tape recording their conversation for the FBI in hopes for a confession.

Even though the scene was not completely real (LaVona did not go to Tonya’s home to do this, LaVona had shown up to the rink Tonya was practicing at to record her with a hidden microphone) there are no words to describe how awful of a mother and person LaVona Golden is. I do not blame Tonya Harding a single bit for still not being in contact with her mother to this very day.

Villain number two, Tonya’s first boyfriend and then husband, Jeff Gillooly. He was no better than LaVona. While their young love seemed sweet and wholesome at first, he also turned out to be manipulative and abusive. Once, when they were in a fight, he slammed her hand in the car door. He also threatened her with a gun. They would constantly fight and hit each other, which was obviously unhealthy, but I think Harding was a hard person to get along with, and whether she thought that or not, she knew Gillooly would always come back to her- and he knew she would always take him back.

Whenever I defend myself as a Tonya Harding sympathizer, I often get a reaction similar to, “how can you defend someone who bashed her opponent’s knees in” or “she knew about the plan the whole time.” While none of us will ever know the full truth, I am sticking to the narrative that she was blindsided by her ex-husband, bodyguard, and their cronies. Even if this was not the case, I cannot help but feel bad for her upbringing.

Quite simply, her home and family life sucked. She was poor, Jeff was poor, they married young, he was obviously manipulative and toxic, and I believe he organized the whole thing so that Tonya was guaranteed a spot on the Olympic team and would once more bring in the money for the both of them.

I know Nancy Kerrigan was severely injured and her career was threatened, but without knowing what truly happened, I cannot confidently blame Tonya Harding for what happened, even if she was involved. I do believe that the media was against her and it got to the point where she could not handle the pressure of slipping and losing, but I think her manic break after everything happened was because now her career was clearly jeopardized and there was not any real way to defend herself.

My compliments to screenwriter Steven Rogers because ending with the scene of Tonya boxing (which was her career after being banned from skating for the rest of her life), and including the line “Violence was always what I knew anyway,” was perfect, straight to the point. There was no better way to conclude.  I understand why people cannot feel bad for Tonya and the consequences she faced after the Kerrigan scandal, but I feel like, at the bare minimum, anyone could sympathize with her for the background of her life and the way there was no escaping the fate of her downfall.