By Ashley Dunkak
DETROIT (CBS DETROIT) – 20 years ago today, Detroit’s Cobo Arena and the 1994 U.S. Figure Skating Championship became the site of one of the oddest and most infamous violent incidents in sports history.
Two days before the championship, Nancy Kerrigan, a figure skater who was one of the favorites to contend in the upcoming Winter Olympics, was attacked in the arena after leaving a practice session on the rink.
The assailant had clubbed Kerrigan’s knee with a metal police baton, and as she sat on the ground and clutched the knee, crying, she wailed, “Why? Why? Why?”
Stunned spectators did not stop the assailant, who fled the building and had a getaway car with a driver waiting.
Police later discovered that the man who attacked Kerrigan was a friend of Jeff Gillooly, the ex-husband of another figure skater, Tonya Harding, who was also vying for a spot in the Olympics.
Though Kerrigan’s knee injury kept her out of the championship, the qualifier for the Olympics, both she and Harding were chosen to represent the United States, and Kerrigan earned a silver medal, while Harding finished eighth.
Two months later, Harding admitted she heard about the plot after it occurred and did not report that information. By pleading guilty to hindering the prosecution, Harding avoided a trial. Though she escaped jail time – unlike her ex-husband and several others – Harding was banned from the sport for life.
The whole incident ensured the names Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding would be ingrained in the public consciousness for decades to come, but the immediate impact of the drama was a huge increase in the attention paid to the sport of figure skating.
According to USA Today, the women’s short program at the 1994 Winter Olympics rates as the sixth-highest rated television show in the nation’s history. Even though the event was tape delayed and many already knew the results because of the radio broadcast, nearly half of all Americans – 48.5 percent of households – tuned in.
Two Super Bowls, an episode of Roots, the “Who Shot J.R.?” episode of Dallas and the last episode of M*A*S*H have higher ratings, according to USA Today.
At least momentarily, the assault on Kerrigan turned figure skating into must-see TV. Moreover, instead of giving Harding a better shot at Olympic success and resulting fame and fortune, the assault on Kerrigan – regardless of how much Harding knew and when – ruined Harding’s career and spearheaded that of Kerrigan.
Even 20 years later, the saga remains one of the strangest ever in sports.