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“I, Tonya” Reveals Pitfalls of Competitive Figure Skating as a Sport

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Margot Robbie in I, Tonya
Image credit: Neon

I wanted to write a film review of I, Tonya and start by saying that although Margot Robbie is a fantastic actress, I just didn’t see Tonya Harding in her. I remember Tonya Harding in the 90’s and, despite the garish make-up and costumes, she looked and talked softer than how Robbie portrayed her. I was going to say that director Craig Gillespie should have cast another actress to play 15-year-old Tonya just like Mckenna Grace played a munch younger Tonya. But then I realized that there were better things to say about the film by not writing about the film itself.

I understand that Tonya Harding’s name couldn’t be mentioned without people automatically recalling the Nancy Kerrigan incident. I don’t think we’ll ever really know the complete truth behind that incident. I don’t think anyone is in a position to say that Tonya is more guilty than she has admitted but neither do I want to strip her of responsibility for her involvement by saying she’s a just a victim of her upbringing.

As a person, yes, she’s a victim of her upbringing. But, as an athlete, she was a victim of a system that treated her as second class despite her obvious talent. You’d think that in sports competition, being good is all about having the skills to execute the required moves. Then, you realize that “good” is subjective because scores depend too on image.

In one scene in the film, after doing her routine, Tonya skates to the judges' table and asks what it would take to get a fair score. A lady judge replied that they scored based on "presentation" too—obviously referring to Tonya's cheap hand-made costumes.

Image credit: Neon

In one scene in the film, after doing her routine, Tonya skates to the judges’ table and asks what it would take to get a fair score. A lady judge replied that they scored based on “presentation” too—obviously referring to Tonya’s cheap hand-made costumes. In another scene, Tonya walks up to a judge as he got into his car in the parking lot. She knocks on his window until he rolls it down.

Tonya: “Can I just talk to you for a moment about my score?”

Judge: “Happy to.”

Tonya: “I know that you guys don’t like me but I’m landing all my jumps out there…”

Judge: “Tonya, it’s never been entirely about the skating… I’ll deny I ever said it, honey, but you’re just not the image that we want to portray… You’re representing our country, for fuck’s sake, we need to see a wholesome American family… and you… you just refuse to play along.”

Tonya: “I don’t have a wholesome American family… Why can’t it be just about the skating?”

And the judge rolls up his window.

If you’re wondering whether the scene happened in real life or a mere dramatization, I’ll tell you that it doesn’t matter. It represents a lot of things that was wrong with competitive figure skating during the time of Harding and Kerrigan. In “Remote Control“, writer Sarah Marshall encapsulates it well.

When it came to the technical merit score, with its necessary deductions for errors and falls, judges’ rankings were more or less objective; artistic impressions left a little more room for interpretation. Despite its specific list of requirements—for musicality, use of the rink, deportment, and other qualities—”artistic impression” was a far more elastic score. Judges could allow their scores to be influenced by a skater’s costume, or by a skater’s appearance, or simply by some ineffable quality that struck them, somehow, as “right”—right for the moment, right for the event, right for the sport.

Tonya Harding, a poor but talented skater who had to sew her own costumes, lost points because she had "thick thighs", liked to tinker with cars and trucks, smoked, drank and was a fixture on the police blotter because her husband physically abused her.

Image credit: Neon

The more “elegant” Kerrigan who also portrayed a happy and stable family life was preferred by the judges although she may not have been better than Harding at every competition. Tonya Harding, on the other hand, a poor but talented skater who had to sew her own costumes, lost points because she had “thick thighs”, liked to tinker with cars and trucks, smoked, drank and was a fixture on the police blotter because her husband physically abused her.

If figure skating were something like, say, Project Runway, it’s understandable that judges would be concerned about finding someone with that elusive x-factor. The winner, after all, has to fit the fancy of the fashion designers and cosmetics companies that she will eventually work with. And these businesses, in turn, are concerned with hiring someone who appeals to the public.

But a sport is not—should not be—like that. There is no x-factor in figure skating—there shouldn’t be; otherwise, it wouldn’t be a sport. Who the stupid fools were that wrote the rules back then that allowed judges to take such liberties with the scores, I have no idea. But the scoring system was ripe for abuse and cheating.

The good news is that scoring in figure skating competitions has changed since the time of Tonya Harding as a result of a scandal in the 2002 Winter Olympics that arose precisely because of this leeway given to judges to score based on subjective standards. Today, scoring is about whether the skater lands her jumps, completes her turns, performs to the beat of the music and what she does on the ice between the jumps and the turns (my older daughter used to figure skate and she did competitions, so I know a few things).

But is I, Tonya a good film? It is worth watching if only to understand why some sports are for the rich and why others are just what they are—sports.