When people talk about the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan mess, what often gets lost is that the scheme worked. Sort of.
Kerrigan was attacked by two men intent on boosting the Olympic chances of her U.S. teammate and figure-skating nemesis, Harding. (Harding later pleaded guilty to helping cover up the Keystone Kops plot.)
But though the story had been leading newscasts for weeks and most of the details were already public knowledge, Harding was still allowed to compete at Lillehammer 1994. For a moment there, despite everything, Harding could have come out on top.
It didn’t turn out that way. Harding busted a lace at the Winter Games, cried to the judges and finished eighth. Kerrigan finished second and got caught on a hot mic saying “This is so corny” as she was paraded through Disney World. Neither competed at the highest level again.
On one level, it’s a parable about the corrosive effects of aspiration and hubris.
But if you’re more a fan of Machiavelli than Aesop’s Fables, there’s another way of looking at it. That it wasn’t so much a colossally stupid idea (which it was) as a poorly executed one. Without drawing any direct parallels between the two events, that brings us to the curious case of the Paris Saint-Germain women’s soccer team.
PSG is the best team in the best women’s league in the world. Like its men’s counterpart, PSG Féminine is a lavishly funded super team constructed without regard to profit margins. The goal isn’t just winning. It is stockpiling as much talent as possible. That talent includes Canadians Ashley Lawrence, Stephanie Labbé and Jordyn Huitema.
Things didn’t totally work out for PSG last year, so the club went on a buying spree. One of its acquisitions was veteran midfielder Kheira Hamraoui.
Hamraoui’s arrival punted another PSG midfielder, Aminata Diallo, onto the substitutes bench.
Having too many good players and not enough spots on the field is a typical problem for the richest soccer teams. Whenever you hear that top player X wants out of top team Y, this is usually the source of the friction. Often, these fights become ugly.
But according to reports in France, things may have jumped a level in this instance.
The French sports bible, L’Équipe, says matters took a turn for the film noir last week. The PSG squad got together for a team dinner. Afterward, Diallo offered to give Hamraoui a lift.
As they pulled up outside Hamraoui’s home, two men in balaclavas set upon them. They pulled Hamraoui out of the car and beat her with iron bars. The assault particularly targeted her legs. The attackers stole nothing and left.
Hamraoui was treated for cuts and bad bruises and sent to the injured reserve. The incident was news, but only in the sense of reminding the French public that bad things happen to famous people as well.
On Tuesday, Diallo took Hamraoui’s place in the starting team for a Champions League match against Real Madrid. On Wednesday morning, she was arrested by police in Versailles. At the moment, she is suspected of involvement in the attack.
“The club is paying close attention to the progress of the proceedings and will study what action to take,” PSG said in a statement.
They won’t be the only ones.
First things first – nothing’s been proved one way or the other. Maybe this is a terrible mix-up, or someone looking to stitch up a blameless person in order to get an easier ride for themselves.
But let’s just say that if the details as reported are actual facts, it doesn’t look great.
What amazes me is not that such a thing can happen, but that it happens so rarely. There is no glory in our culture quite like athletic glory. You’d imagine people who are just one person removed from it might go to unhealthy, even cruel, lengths to get some for themselves.
Combine glory with the promise of money, and that’s a combo that could turn the best of us bad.
If we want to see where this goes from here, we reach back nearly 30 years to the Kerrigan-Harding template.
By the end of the week, Hamraoui and Diallo will be the two most famous women’s soccer players in the world. If the story gets any more gaudy, they may soon be the two best-known female athletes, full stop. That isn’t a good thing for either of them.
The story contains too much tabloid catnip not to be debased immediately to its most lurid components. This won’t be about one person’s harrowing experience of being set upon and put in fear of her life. It’ll be about two crude feminine stereotypes coming into conflict.
Abetted by the content-hungry public – including the part that will howl loudest about the unfairness of it all – the media will pick over both their lives until there’s nothing left but bone. The best-case scenario is that it ends quickly and justly. The worst case, for all involved, is that it drags on for months.
It’s not polite to say it, but this sort of thing drives interest in pro sports, in the same way Kerrigan-Harding drove interest in figure skating. (Their head-to-head showdown in Norway was, at the time, the sixth most-watched program in U.S. television history.)
Every once in a while, we need to be reminded that athletes aren’t just going through the motions and collecting cheques. They will do anything – in a very few cases, literally so – to get to the top.
It’s not a valorous instinct. It shouldn’t applauded or encouraged. But it does reorient the audience’s perception of the stakes involved. And whether we will admit it, it makes us want to watch even more.