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Wednesday, March 5, 2014

20 years later: Tonya Harding, Nancy Kerrigan and Colorado Springs

Posted By on Wed, Mar 5, 2014 at 12:36 PM

click to enlarge From the documentary: Bill Hybl speaking in 1994.
  • From the documentary: Bill Hybl speaking in 1994.
Considering the medal shut-out, women's figure skating didn't exactly rock the world at the Sochi Olympics, where Russia's Adelina Sotnikova won gold in a somewhat controversial decision.

What did make a splash, again, were the 1994 events between top skaters Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding and Co. The 20-year anniversary was played up hard by NBC, but the December release of a new ESPN documentary by Academy Award-nominated director Nanette Burstein first rekindled interest in a big way.

30 for 30: The Price of Gold, which can currently be streamed on Netflix, grippingly retells the story that began Jan. 6, 1994 in Detroit, with archival footage and current interviews with related players, including Harding herself. (Another great account of those months is Sarah Marshall's piece in The Believer.) 

In the latter half of the documentary, however, a familiar face makes an appearance: Colorado Springs resident Bill Hybl, a regional power player who runs the El Pomar Foundation, among other responsibilities, and is a former head of the U.S. Olympic Committee. Though he didn't occupy that role at the time, he was asked by the head of U.S. Figure Skating Association to chair the committee — which met on the third floor at Penrose House — that eventually recommended Harding be stripped of membership and banned for life, a move described in the documentary as a death sentence.

We couldn't reach him before the Olympics, but Hybl talked to the Indy last week by phone from a trip in California, where he said that he still agrees with the decision to boot the figure skater who was controversial even before the attack on Kerrigan.

"Oh absolutely, absolutely," he says. "I believe that based on the totality of the evidence that the recommendations and decisions of the hearing panel were not only correct, I think they were appropriate."

Of the documentary itself, Hybl joked about the round glasses he was wearing, and said he thought it was well done, but that "you could argue it was really more sympathetic to Tonya Harding than the facts would have really portrayed."

click to enlarge Nancy Kerrigan in 2007. - SHUTTERSTOCK
  • Shutterstock
  • Nancy Kerrigan in 2007.
"Let me just say that I had concluded my first term as president of the United States Olympic Committee at the end of 1992, I think it was November, and Jerry Lace, the executive director of the United States Figure Skating Association, talked with me in January of 1994, after the incident with Nancy Kerrigan in Detroit," he says. "And at that point there was circumstantial evidence that I think pointed to Tonya Harding’s complicity in the event, and the United States Figure Skating Association designated a five-person panel to conduct disciplinary hearings in regard to the incident.

"And there was no foregone conclusion. I think that we had four members of the panel, three from the United States Figure Skating Association who had been actively involved, one athlete, and then they asked me if I would chair the panel." 

As far as the media whirlwind that followed, including media trying to have Harding's car towed so that she would have to come out of the building and talk to them, Hybl says he "was surprised at the amount of national interest, as well as local interest, in what was going on."

In the documentary, Harding's portrayed as a tomboy who flees from an abusive relationship with her mother into an abusive relationship with her husband; who skates with incredible strength — she was the first American woman to land the triple axel in a competition — but with little grace, an impression that she felt always kept her on the outside of the skating world, especially as compared to Nancy Kerrigan.

Hybl says Kerrigan's "a talented, graceful, strong skater," while complimenting Harding as "athletic, with a great deal of determination." It's an opinion based on years of involvement in the sport.

"I think figure skating is truly one of the sports which is not only exacting, but it’s athletic and it’s very graceful in the way that it’s done at the top levels," he says. "El Pomar supported the move of figure skating to Colorado Springs; was involved in their establishment of a museum; and I go clear back to 1977, when I was general counsel for the World Figure Skating Championships, which were held in the old Broadmoor World Arena. So, yes, I have been involved with figure skating — and not as a figure skater, don’t get me wrong — but at that time, I had been involved for a number of years."

As for the ultimate question — whether Hybl thinks Harding helped plan the attack, something she denies to this day, saying only that she helped obstruct the investigation under threat of murder by her husband Jeff Gillooly, which he denies — the former committee chairman offers a careful non-answer.

"You know, that’s an interesting question, and I think each member of the panel would probably have a little view of it," Hybl says. "But I have found through the years that the best answer to that question, and a variety of others, is to go back, as you would in your legal system, and think about the totality of the evidence and that’s what I’ll stick with."

Below are documents released to the Indy from El Pomar and the USFSA detailing the committee's creation, its report and remarks Hybl made to Congress in 1995.

USFSA's decision regarding Tonya Harding

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