Figure Skating, Nancy Kerrigan, Sports, Tonya Harding

Flashback ’94: Battle on Ice

Remember the early months of 1994?

January — The biggest scandal in sports history to this date unfolds in front of the American public. In the eye of the storm are US Figure Skaters Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding. Their names were about to receive international fame far beyond the skating world. Shortly before the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, their competitive struggle turns ugly. Nancy Kerrigan, the public’s favorite, is assaulted with a fatal blow on her thigh which put her much anticipated participation in the Olympics in question. Much of the assault is captured on camera and made available to a worldwide audience. The public’s interest in the assault grows as it turns out that her rival’s ex-husband is behind the attack. What follows, is a real-life drama covered extensively by American media and eagerly broadcast worldwide.

I’m watching some of it on my television in my apartment in Munich while trying to focus on packing and storing my belongings away for a long absence.

March — I arrive in San Francisco with two suitcases and a bicycle. The plan is to stay for one year, do some freelance journalism, and then return to my home and job in Munich, Germany. As I unpack and turn on my American television for the first time, I’m surprised to see the continuation of the Kerrigan/Harding drama and the extent of the coverage by the American media. They are digging up material about the personal lives of the people involved — something that makes me with my German reserve rather uncomfortable.

May — My first article is published by several German newspapers. Its topic is the TV movie Tonya and Nancy: The Inside Story, which aired only three months after the actual drama.

At the time, as a recently arrived and young freelance-journalist, I had decided to write about everything that struck me as unusual in the USA. The unprecedented attack on an ice skater just before the Olympics in Lillehammer was just such a phenomenon. America’s fascination with this drama, and its shameless voyeurism, were also noteworthy. I thought it bizarre that such an outrageous event could be exploited for a TV drama so soon after it had happened, with emotions still running high and with those involved trying to come to terms with its consequences. So I wrote about the movie and submitted my article to several newspapers in Germany. Three of the more important ones — Stuttgarter NachrichtenKieler Nachrichten, and Hessische/Niedersächsische Allgemeine— accepted.

I felt proud. German readers, I imagined, were as stunned by America’s voyeurism as was I. But I think their interest in my story was less about the TV drama. These German readers became voyeurs themselves – gawking at Americans gawking at two tragic ice figure skaters.


My first published newspaper article as a reporter from San Francisco! Published by Stuttgarter Nachrichten.

Twenty-four years have passed since then. My career as a German journalist was short-lived. With the unprecedented dot-com boom of the late 90s and the subsequent arrival of countless German colleagues competing over who would be the first to report about the swift rise of the high-tech phenomenon called Silicon Valley, my unique role as one of only two German journalists in the San Francisco Bay Area was quickly eclipsed. With the advent of the internet, which allowed free access to online resources, the newspaper industry changed dramatically. I saw my chances as a traditional writer and correspondent focusing on American culture and life style stories in this highly competitive market dwindle – together with my income. I transitioned (or rather retreated) to the life of a free-lance translator, an occupation that allowed me to continue my love relationship with language, keep my mind open for new subjects, and to become part of an open-minded and highly interesting community of professionals with different backgrounds from all over the world.

However, as I began to establish myself as a technical translator, and as my financial situation stabilized, I began to suffer from a lack of creativity and a nagging feeling of isolation. If I wasn’t working from home, I would spend long hours commuting to various clients in the dreaded Silicon Valley to work in bleak office spaces, immersed in a culture of computer nerds with very different mindsets. So I began to look for a creative outlet and a social scene that would be more appealing. I found it in dancing.

I worked my way up to competition and performance level, and eventually discovered Argentine tango. This, I discovered, actually involves a whole universe that goes far beyond the dance. As such it triggered my urge to write again. I started my own tango blog to describe some of the fascinating aspects of this world, hoping at the same time to find an audience which would find it equally fascinating.

Now, just as I am to take my next step in my writing career – turning my tango blog into an online tango magazine – I find myself being haunted by my past: the two subjects of my very first story as a German journalist in California appear again in the public spotlight: Tonya and Nancy.

I couldn’t believe my eyes when a few weeks ago I saw the preview of a newly produced big screen movie, I, Tonya. ‘They’ve actually picked up that old ugly story and turned it into a full-length movie!’ I thought to myself. I cringed inwardly. After all these years, I still have an uncomfortable feeling about peeking into people’s personal lives. I guess my German reserve still hasn’t given way to what I call American voyeurism. Even worse, I feel these two tragic figures have become part of my own life. I feel protective of Tonya and Nancy as if they were part of my family. There was a time, twenty-four years ago, when their story followed me from one end of the world to the other. By writing about them their story touched me and became somehow a part of my own story.

Now I see the real Tonya Harding in an interview. She has grown older. Life has left its traces on her face, just as it has on mine. We’re both middle-aged at this point. And despite our different lives we meet again. Strangely, things have come full circle.



In the meantime, my tango blog can be found here:


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