"She Pulled That Off": Female Figure Skaters and the Olympic Comeback Tale

Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan avoid eye contact on the ice in 1994

Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan seeming a little icy in 1994. (Photo via

The other night, I took part in a shouted conversation—as I so often do these days—about Tonya Harding. This time I was in a bar, and the shouting was necessary not in order to make my point convincing, but simply to make my voice heard: a dubstep remix of the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” had taken over the room, and conversation was not the order of the evening, but I prevailed—as I so often do when the subject is Ms. Harding.

“I had no idea any of it even happened,” my friend said, referring, of course, not to Tonya’s nearly decade-long career, but to the scandal with which her name has become synonymous. “I mean, I loved figure skating—I was crazy about it—but I grew up in Russia, and they just didn’t cover the scandal there.”

For a few moments, I was completely unable to form a response. As much as I had railed against the press’ insatiable coverage of the scandal, I still couldn’t really imagine the media ignoring it, either—no matter what country they represented.

“Well,” I said, quickly trying to think of what the biggest human-interest story of the 1994 Games might have been, at least from a Russian perspective, “I guess there was a lot of coverage of Gordeeva and Grinkov returning to competition after being professional for all those years, right? Or Usova and Zhulin’s marriage breaking up, after Zhulin had an affair with another ice dancer? That was pretty scandalous, wasn’t it?”

 She shook her head. “I don’t remember that either.”

“Oh,” I said. And I had to ask, because I couldn’t stop myself wondering: “What did they talk about?”

“The skating,” she said simply.

Ah, yes: the skating. It’s why I’m watching the Olympics, why I fell in love with the Games and fell in love with the sport that first allowed me to care about sports at all. But where does the actual skating end and the narrative begin? And how, in the sport where women are most visible at the winter Olympics, can we separate narrative from sport?

As we head into this Olympics, it’s hard not to think of one skater who won’t be going to Sochi: twenty-year-old Mirai Nagasu, who placed fourth at the 2010 Games and who hoped to have another chance at a medal this year, despite several intervening seasons of inconsistent competition. Skating at the US Championships last month, Mirai managed a bronze medal finish, edging out skater Ashley Wagner, another Olympic hopeful who, since 2010, had been improving as an athlete and a competitor about as steadily as Mirai had been declining. After the medals were handed out, the US Figure Skating Association made an unprecedented decision: to place Ashley on the team instead of Mirai. It was the first time the association had used such discretionary power, with the exception of  a very few cases in which an injured athlete unable to compete at the Championships was added to the Olympic team. The Association’s decision raised far more questions than it will probably ever answer, but one seems particularly salient as we begin the Games themselves: at what point do we begin selecting winners and losers not for their great abilities, but for the great made-for-TV narrative they will make? 

Watching Mirai Nagasu’s free skate last month—which she executed cleanly, but without the verve, energy, and joyfulness she exhibited when she was at her best—I was reminded of the Olympic efforts put forth by Claudia Leistner, who competed for West Germany between 1980 and 1989. Leistner spent much of her decade-long career in the shadow of East Germany’s Katarina Witt, who won Olympic gold in 1984 and 1988, a feat which no individual skater, male or female, has since repeated. Katarina was also one of the very few Soviet athletes Americans ever truly embraced, not just because of her skating prowess, but because of her star quality on the ice. She was, as Sports Illustrated’s Rick Reilly wrote in 1986, “so fresh-faced, so blue-eyed, so ruby-lipped, so 12-car-pileup gorgeous, she [made] a lousy enemy of capitalism.” When she won her first Olympic gold, in 1984, it was Katarina—girlish and guileless at one moment, then as sassily sexy as a Bond villainess ready to disavow socialism as she melted into 007’s arms—who won America’s heart, and not America’s own silver medalist, Rosalynn Sumners. In the ensuing decade, Katarina signed an endorsement deal with Diet Coke, dated Richard Dean Anderson of MacGyver fame, skated to Michael Jackson’s “Bad” before delighted crowds (leather-clad, she moonwalked across the ice), and received “many letters from…many [American] boys,” as she told a reporters immediately following the 1984 Games.

Katarina Witt performing "Bad"katarina witt's diet coke ad

Katarina Witt: Great skater, terrible enemy of capitalism. 

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Berlin Wall, Claudia Leistner did her best to catch up. After winning silver at the 1983 World Championships, she finally managed to get back on the podium after six years of struggle—and the year after Katarina retired. It wasn’t so much that the women had a direct rivalry, but that Kararina simply had all the qualities Claudia didn’t: Claudia was a strong athlete and a consistent competitor, but she wasn’t a star, and this shortcoming could inspire not just boredom but rancor among Olympic commentators and audiences alike.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Peggy Fleming’s commentary for Claudia’s short program at the 1984 Games, which I watch, I will admit right now, an average of twice a month. Partly I keep trying to understand Peggy’s irritation with poor Claudia; partly, it’s so juicily excruciating that I just can’t keep away. As Claudia executes a forward camel spin, Peggy, sounding like the discipline-loving third grade teacher of the world, remarks: “Not a very good position. That leg doesn’t even seem to be up high enough. Bad arm positions.” After Claudia’s double axel, Peggy manages an incredulous “She pulled that off. Not great.” After a missed double jump combination, Peggy chuckles drily, as if she has been merely waiting for this confirmation of what she already knows, and is happily to finally see it. “Overall,” she concludes at the end, “that was rather sloppy.”

Every time I watch that program, I find myself thinking about what separates good skating from great skating, at least as far as commentators and judges are concerned. Certainly, Claudia Leistner was a good skater, and sometimes she was even a great one. Her performance at the 1984 Games was athletically weak because she was then dealing—as far too many skaters do—with the aftermath of an injury. It was because of this that she missed a crucial double jump combination, and, according to commentator Dick Button, didn’t move “with any speed or lightness.” She appeared tired, out of shape, and distracted, but perhaps even more damning than this was her lack of engagement with the crowd. Audiences and commentators alike could easily get behind the narrative of a promising athlete fallen on hard times but still willing to give it her all. Dick and Peggy seemed to think, and encouraged their viewers to agree, that Claudia Leistner was simply wasting everyone’s time. But if she had been a star—if she had been more graceful, more girlishly sexy, more charismatic, or simply more interested in the crowd—she could also have been worth cheering on, and her relatively poor showing could be made to seem a triumph over adversity. Instead, commentators framed her performance as the pointless posturings of a girl who demanded to be there, even though she didn’t belong.

claudie leistner, skating in a bright orange outfit

Claudia Leistner: Pulling it off. 

When Claudia skated at the Olympics yet again in 1988, Peggy noted that she had “always been a good competitor: she can always pull off these elements when she absolutely has to.” Though Peggy didn’t seem quite so impatient with Claudia as she had at the last Games, her analysis still seemed like a back-handed compliment at best: when she absolutely had to, Claudia would do what she should have been doing all along. But she “hasn’t been very strong,” Peggy added, “in the audience appeal.” Claudia often seemed closed off from viewers, her eyes on her skates and her concentration drawing her deeper within her own mind instead of drawing her audience out of theirs, but her competitive record suggested an even more damning disregard: Claudia skated to fulfill not her audience’s desires but her own. She didn’t want to build up a lasting narrative of triumph and adversity, to make herself a heroine in our eyes, and to make us feel like we were winning through her. She just wanted to win.

As Claudia began her short program in 1988, the commentators were already distracted with talk of Katarina Witt, who was to compete for her second Olympic gold later that night, and whose primary competition was American Debi Thomas. Debi, the Dick and Peggy told viewers who needed to be brought up to speed, was a 1986 World champion and Stanford pre-med student whose triple jumps were impeccable, but whose star quality needed some work. From the start, the contest between Debi and Kati—dubbed “The Battle of the Carmens,” since both women would skated to the music of Bizet’s opera—was pitted as a showdown between brawn and elegance, jumps and choreography, stolidness and sexiness, skating’s future and skating’s past. Katarina was “the movie star,” and Debi was “the athlete”: those were the roles their sport appointed them, so those were the roles they played.

Now, of course, a quarter-century of hindsight is more than enough to let us see that Debi had charisma to spare—she connected with the audience, and was funny, bubbly, and captivating on the ice and off—and that any problem audiences or commentators had embracing her most likely came not from any fault of hers as a performer, but because she was muscular, openly competitive, and black. One also can’t help wondering if it was a relief to some viewers when, after a flawless short program, Debi choked in her free skate, botching several of her triples and leaving the ice looking shell-shocked and numb. If Debi had skated clean that night, she most likely would have taken the gold, a troubling prospect for those who didn’t want to associate the apex of feminine achievement with a whip-smart, physically powerful black woman. So it was perhaps all the easier to embrace Katarina, whose rendition of Carmen, commentator Dick Button promised, would be “a flirtatious one.”

It was. So intricate was Katarina’s choreography, so seductive was her manner with the crowd, and so lovely was the skater herself in her blood-red costume, that one could almost forget that she landed only four triple jumps that night, sticking largely to toe loops—the very easiest of the five jumps routinely performed in ladies’ competition—and doubling a triple when she felt uncertain she could manage it. Katarina was no longer the vibrant young girl with the effortless jumping passes she had been in 1984; she was a grown woman, her athletic ability greatly diminished, and she had to be conservative, cautious, and strategic. But she gave the crown what they wanted: someone to love. Even Dick Button was enchanted by the portion of her program which he bluntly called “a posing section”: over a minute in which Katarina engineered a second wind for herself by using “her acting ability…but not her skating ability,” as Dick said. She was a star, and her narrative was a beloved one: the comeback champion reminding us all what skating was all about—grace, charisma, and traditional femininity. On the ice, Katarina did only what she absolutely had to, but for her audience, and for all those who worried that Debi Thomas heralded the future (and she did), Katarina did much more.

a newsweek cover of debi thomas 

Watch enough figure skating, and certain commentators will work their way into your mind; long after they’ve retired, you’ll hear what they would say in a given situation. Watching Mirai Nagasu’s performance at the US Championships last month, I couldn’t help hearing Peggy—and agreeing with her. “She pulled that off,” Peggy and I said as Mirai managed clean landings on all of her jumps, though she was sometimes badly tilted in the air, and though her jumps lacked the height and the speed she had displayed not so many seasons ago. Like Claudia Leistner before her, she seemed tired, distracted, and anxious throughout her program. Her choreography was desultory; her mind simply seemed elsewhere. It was only in the final seconds of her program, when all her jumps were behind her, that Mirai seemed to open up to the crowd that had shown her so much support throughout her program, beaming as she executed one of the devilishly difficult spins—this time a gorgeous Biellmann—she had become famous for. She knew going into the skate what she absolutely had to do, and she had done it. In any other year, this would have been enough to yield her a berth to the Games. But this time, the powers that be decided for that “pulling it off” just wasn’t enough.

All this was what the fan part of my brain said. It was only when I stepped back that I saw a narrative less accepted within the world of ladies’ figure skating, but also more true: a woman doing her very best, and sharing her skill with the world. That was it. That was all. That was the only service Mirai owed us, and she paid us in full. So why did we want more?

We may never know exactly what kept Mirai off the team. Some have argued that Ashley Wagner was already the focus of too many ad campaigns to not make it to Sochi; some that the USFSA privileged Ashley in part because she was white. Both these answers, I think, have at least some truth to them, but to understand the devastating conclusion to Mirai’s journey, we also have to be willing to share some of the blame. As viewers, we crave shows of athleticism and skill, but we also crave narrative. The proven unpalatability of Mirai’s narrative to an Olympic audience—an athlete does what she absolutely has to because she wants one more chance to win—may well have played a role in the USFSA’s decision. But if we are willing to embrace ambition and competitiveness in female athletes, we may be rewarded with the uncensored versions of their stories—stories which could, someday, also come with happier conclusions.

Related Reading: Race and the U.S. Figure Skating Team

Sarah Marshall lives, writes, and teaches in Portland, Oregon, and recently published an essay on Tonya Harding in The Believer. She also talked with Bitch about female figure skaters for our Olympics podcast episode.


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Comments

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Great Analysis

I applaud the multiple insights in this article. For decades, women's figure-skating has profoundly affected by sexism which turn the sport into something else -- e.g., referendum on women's proper place; approval of conventional beauty. I remember the Tonya/Nancy matter as if it were yesterday: the media fed on it like sharks. It saddens but doesn't surprise me that commentary on this sport mirrors the values of society; it doesn't appear that this is changing. Nice points made here.