Mental Floss
SPORTS

9 Scandals That Rocked the Figure Skating World

Jessica Bloustein Marshall
Tonya Harding (left) and Nancy Kerrigan practice before the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway.
Tonya Harding (left) and Nancy Kerrigan practice before the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway. / Pascal Rondeau/Getty Images
facebooktwitterreddit

Don't let the ornate costumes and beautiful choreography fool you. Figure skaters are no strangers to scandal. Here are nine notable ones.

1. Tonya Harding, Nancy Kerrigan, and a Club-Wielding Hitman // 1994

Nancy Kerrigan (left) and Tonya Harding practice in Lillehammer before the 1994 Olympics.
Nancy Kerrigan (left) and Tonya Harding practice in Lillehammer before the 1994 Olympics. / Pascal Rondeau/ALLSPORT/Getty Images

In 1994, a little club-and-run thrust the sport of figure skating into the spotlight. The assault on reigning national champion Nancy Kerrigan (and her subsequent anguished cries) at the 1994 U.S. National Figure Skating Championships in Detroit was heard 'round the world, as were the allegations that her main rival, Tonya Harding, may have been behind it all.

The story goes something like this: Kerrigan is preparing to compete for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team bound for Lillehammer, Norway. She gets clubbed in the knee outside the locker room after practice. Kerrigan is forced to withdraw from competition and Harding gets the gold. Details soon emerge that Harding's ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, hired the hitman behind the attack. Harding denies any knowledge or involvement, but tanks at the Olympics the following month. She then pleads guilty to hindering prosecution of Gillooly and his co-conspirators, bodyguard Shawn Eckhart and hitman Shane Stant. Harding is banned from figure skating for life.

Questions about Harding's guilt remain nearly three decades later, and the event is still a topic of conversation. An ESPN 30 for 30 documentary and the Oscar-nominated film I, Tonya revisited the saga, proving we can't get enough of the scandal.

2. Ashley Wagner hand-picked for the Olympics // 2014

Mirai Nagasu (left) and Ashley Wagner stand at the podium during the medal ceremony following the free skate program during the 2014 Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championships.
Mirai Nagasu (left) and Ashley Wagner stand at the podium during the medal ceremony following the free skate program during the 2014 Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championships. / Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

Usually, the top three medalists at the U.S. National Figure Skating Championships are chosen for Team USA at the Winter Olympics every four years. But in 2014, gold medalist Gracie Gold, silver medalist Polina Edmunds, and fourth-place finisher Ashley Wagner went to Sochi.

What about the bronze medalist, you ask? Mirai Nagasu, despite out-skating Wagner by a landslide and being the only skater with prior Olympic experience (she placed fourth at Vancouver in 2010) had to watch it all on television. The decision by U.S. Figure Skating, the sport’s governing body, deeply divided the skating community and fans. Picking Wagner over Nagasu put a global spotlight on the selection process.

But Team USA athletes are chosen based on a variety of factors, including their performance in international competitions, difficulty of each skater's technical elements, and their marketability to a world audience. Other skaters have been passed over before: Nancy Kerrigan was still chosen for the 1994 Games despite the kneecapping injury, and Michelle Kwan, that year’s U.S. silver medalist, was made a team alternate. Nagasu had the right to appeal the decision and was encouraged to do so by mobs of angry skating fans, but she elected not to.

3. Judges fix pairs showdown at Salt Lake City Olympics // 2002

Pairs skaters Jamie Salé and David Pelletier of Canada and Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze of Russia perform in the figure skating exhibition during the Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games.
Pairs skaters Jamie Salé and David Pelletier of Canada and Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze of Russia perform in the figure skating exhibition during the Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games. / Brian Bahr/Getty Images

This scandal shattered the competitive figure skating’s very structure. When Canadian pairs team Jamie Salé and David Pelletier found themselves in second place after a flawless free skate at the winter Olympics in Salt Lake, something wasn't right. The Russian team of Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze placed first, despite committing several technical errors.

An investigation revealed that judges had conspired to fix the results of the pairs and dance events—a French judge admitted to being pressured to vote for the Russian pair in exchange for a boost for the French dance team of Marina Anissina and Gwendal Peizerat (who won that event). In the end, both pairs teams were awarded a gold medal, and the entire system of judging figure skating competitions was completely overhauled.

4. Jackson Haines brings flair to figure skating // mid-1800s

Jackson Haines, an American figure skater in the mid-1800s, had some crazy ideas about the sport. He had an absolutely ludicrous notion of skating to music (music!), waltzing on ice, and incorporating balletic movements, athletic jumps, and spins into competition. His new style of skating was in complete contrast to the rigid, traditional, and formal standard of tracing figure-eights into the ice. The skating world in America essentially banished Haines and he was forced to take his talents to Europe.

His new “international style” did eventually catch on around the globe, and Haines is now hailed as the father of modern figure skating. He also invented the sit spin, an element required in almost every level and discipline of the sport today.

5. Madge Syers beats guys at their own game // 1902

Madge Syers, British figure skater
Madge Syers, British figure skater / Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In the early 20th century, competitive figure skating was a gentlemen's pursuit. Ladies simply didn't compete by themselves on the world stage (though they did compete in pairs events). But a British skater named Madge Syers flouted that standard, entering the World Figure Skating Championships in 1902. She ruffled a lot of feathers, but was ultimately allowed to compete and beat the pants off every man save one, earning the silver medal.

Her actions sparked a controversy that spurred the International Skating Union to create a separate competitive world event for women in 1906. Madge went on to win that twice, and became Olympic champion at the 1908 summer games [PDF] in London—the first winter Olympics weren't held until 1924 in France, several years after Madge died in 1917.

6. Sonja Henie’s hemlines shock skating world // 1920s

Norwegian figure skater and movie star Sonja Henie
Norwegian figure skater and movie star Sonja Henie / Keystone/Getty Images

Norwegian skater Sonja Henie was the darling of the figure skating world in the first half of the 20th century. The flirtatious blonde was a three-time Olympic champion, a movie star, and the role model of countless aspiring skaters. She brought sexy back to skating—or rather, introduced it. She was the first skater to wear scandalously short skirts and white skates. Prior to her bold fashion choices, ladies wore black skates and long, conservative skirts. During WWII, a fabric shortage hiked up the skirts even further than Henie's typical length, and figure skating costume designers have never looked back.

7. Katarina Witt’s costumes too spicy for the ice // 1980s

DANIEL JANIN, AFP/Getty Images

A buxom beauty from East Germany dominated ladies’ figure skating in the 1980s. A two-time Olympic champion in 1984 and 1988 and six-time world champ, Katarina Witt was just too sexy for her shirt. She tended to wear scandalously revealing costumes (one of which resulted in a wardrobe malfunction during a show), and was criticized for attempting to flirt with the judges to earn higher scores.

The ISU put the kibosh on the controversial outfits soon afterward, inserting a rule that all competitive female skaters “must not give the effect of excessive nudity inappropriate for an athletic sport.” The outrage forced Witt to add some fabric to her competitive outfits in the late '80s. But 10 years later she took it all off, posing naked for a 1998 issue of Playboy.

8. Russian team ticks off Indigenous groups // 2010

The ISU chose “country/folk” as the theme for the original dance segment (since defunct and replaced by the “short dance”) in the ice dancing discipline. Competitors had to create a routine that explored some aspect of country or folk dance in their music, costume, and choreography. Unfortunately, the top Russian team of Oksana Domnina and Maxin Shabalin chose to emulate Aboriginal tribal dance in their program, decked in full bodysuits adorned with their clueless interpretation of Aboriginal body paint (and a loincloth).

Their performance at the European Championships drew heavy criticism from Aboriginal groups in both Australia and Canada, who were rightly offended by the inaccuracy of the costumes and the routine. Domnina and Shabalin dialed down the costumes and dialed up the accuracy in time for the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, but the judges were not impressed. They ended up with the bronze.

9. Mysterious plane crash kills U.S. team // 1961

In February of 1961, the American figure skating team boarded a flight to Belgium from New York, en route to the World Championships in Prague, Czechoslovakia. The plane crashed during its landing in Brussels, killing all 72 passengers. America's top skaters and coaches had been aboard, including nine-time U.S. champion-turned-coach Maribel Vinson Owen and her 16-year-old daughter Laurence Owen, who had just won the U.S. ladies’ national championship. The cause of the accident is still unclear.

The ISU canceled the competition upon the news of the crash and the United States lost its decades-long dominance in the sport for several years. The United States Figure Skating Association established a memorial fund that helped support the skating careers of young athletes, including future Olympic champions like Peggy Fleming and Scott Hamilton.

A version of this story ran in 2018. It has been updated for 2022.

facebooktwitterreddit