Biggest story of ’94 Olympics tied to The Joe

Oralandar Brand-Williams
The Detroit News

Capacity crowds at Joe Louis Arena have seen champions crowned and a president nominated, but one of the most famous incidents in the venue’s history occurred in front of far fewer witnesses, near a practice rink next door in Cobo Arena.

Figure skater Nancy Kerrigan was preparing Jan. 6, 1994, to perform in the U.S. Figure Skating Championships at Joe Louis when a man hit her near the right knee with a black, baton-like club.

The “whack heard ’round the world” — later traced to associates of rival U.S. skater Tonya Harding — became the biggest story at the Winter Olympics the next month in Lillehammer, Norway.

Kerrigan grabbed her knee and cried: “Why? Why? Why?”

The injured skater, 24, was forced to withdraw from the championships at Joe Louis but was awarded a spot on the U.S. Olympic team, along with Harding, 23, who won the U.S. title.

Within two weeks, suspicion had fallen on Harding as authorities charged four people in the attack, all of whom were later convicted and sent to prison: Harding’s ex-husband Jeff Gillooly, bodyguard Shawn Eckardt, attacker Shane Stant and getaway driver Derrick Smith.

Kerrigan, who competed at Lillehammer despite her injury, won the silver medal while Harding — allowed to skate after filing suit against the U.S. Olympic committee — finished eighth.

The attack and the media frenzy that followed lifted figure skating’s popularity to new heights. The Olympic short program the next month drew 126.5 million viewers, one of the largest TV audiences in history.

Kerrigan, despite falling short of the gold medal, enjoyed a successful career as part of the pro tours that formed to take advantage of the increased interest in figure skating. She’s now a contestant on the hit ABC-TV show “Dancing with the Stars.”

Harding — who denied prior knowledge of the plot — pleaded guilty after the Olympics to conspiring to hinder prosecution. She was sentenced to three years’ probation and banned from amateur skating for life.

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