Skategate: a Sunnier Perspective


Just because we live in a sunny land, where kids skate mainly on Rollerblades and standard-issue winter storms are covered on the tube as running calamities . . . just because we are Californians, this doesn’t mean we haven’t kept up with Tonya and Nancy. In fact, California can bring something to Skategate. It’s not forensic evidence or geographic connections--although Hollywood certainly is destined to become the serial’s last venue. It is perspective.

Out here, we understand the Tonya Hardings. Our history books are full of such people. Our streets, libraries, universities and towns are named after them. America is defined less by borders than by movement, the journey from Point A to Point B. Point B is where we live, on the Pacific shore, and characters like Tonya Harding are who got us here. We live in a taken land. The natives didn’t offer up the West; it was taken. Mexico didn’t give California to John C. Fremont; it was taken. Owens Valley didn’t give away the water that built Los Angeles; it was taken. The railroad tycoons, the gold miners, the barons of the San Joaquin Valley; takers all.

Although the earlier historians dolled it up as best they could, this taking was never pretty, never fair, never matched such a lofty phrase as Manifest Destiny . It was crude, rough, bloody business: Many a knee got whacked on the old Santa Fe and Oregon trails.


Which takes us back to Tonya.


There seems to be, among some people anyway, a reservoir of equivocal, ill-defined empathy for Harding. It doesn’t always show up in polls. When pollsters come calling, people will say that they recycle plastics, vote every Tuesday and abhor knee-whackers. And it’s not simply a matter of supporting due process and presumed innocence. Nonetheless, talk to friends and neighbors informally, and many will confess to a fascination, if not support, for Harding. They will add quickly that they don’t know why. Here’s one theory:

Harding is a throwback. We didn’t think they made ‘em like her anymore. The pioneer days are done, and there is nowhere left to push, and idled we worry about growing soft, losing the edges, becoming a nation of occupants and victims. There is nothing soft about Tonya Harding. She smokes, drinks, shoots pool, keeps bad company, and makes her plans.

If she indeed did what many people suspect she did, and maybe even if she didn’t, Harding is a classic taker. When she says from Lillehammer that she wants a gold medal and is “going to get it,” period, it reminds me of what William Mulholland said as the first water he finagled from the Owens Valley splashed down the aqueduct. “There it is,” he said. “Take it.” And while we no longer approve of our forebears’ tactics, we certainly have stuck around to enjoy the results, no?

Say what you will of the western pioneers, they knew what they were after, and how to get it. Audacity was not an issue. Consider the outrageous, complex waterworks and cultivated deserts and coastal municipalities that now define California. I doubt much of it would be attempted today, let alone accomplished. Similarly, it seems inconceivable that anyone today would be so fixated on Olympic victory that she could conspire to wound a rival.

But here we are, the sons and daughters of takers, and there she is, without apologies, sharing the practice rink in Lillehammer with Kerrigan. “Harding,” went a New York Times account Friday, “seemed much less inhibited than Kerrigan about where she could go. There was something primal about the way Harding staked out every corner of the rink.”


Which takes us to Kerrigan. Whack them hard enough, and some people will admit to an uneasiness about Kerrigan. As with Harding, they can’t explain it. Certainly Kerrigan projects what we’d prefer to imagine we’ve become, in our post-taking period--civilized, demure, graceful. But she also represents an American type as modern as Harding’s is antique: a victim. Someone in the wrong place, at the wrong time; videotape to follow.


No, she didn’t ask for it. “Why me?” she wailed. The attack, though, has made her golden. Kerrigan can belly-flop this week, and Wheaties still will put her on the box, Hollywood still will come a-knocking. She’s won, in the new American way, and that’s . . . nice, isn’t it?

Maybe in the end, what Tonya and Nancy have done is push to a point of comic clarity a conflict in the national soul--the struggle between what we were and what we have become, the grappling that follows from the unpleasant knowledge of what it took to get from Point A to Point B. An alternative view is that it’s only figure skating.