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30 Years Ago: Tonya & Nancy, Arnie & OJ, Tiger & Annika, no World Series – Sports Became News in 1994

By Ron Sirak • @ronsirak
Feb. 2024

Among the compelling things about sports is the way they compress the timeframe of life. in the blink of an eye, much is learned about who we are. In a game or round or match or season we come to understand not only ability but also desire, ethics, loyalty and respect.

Thirty years ago, 1994 presented the good, the bad and the ugly of who we are. A hit was ordered in the sedate world of figure skating; a sports icon was caught in a murder probe; and a labor strike wiped out the World Series for the first time in 90 years. All these remarkable off-field headlines overshadowed some incredible on-field performances.

In February, at the Winter Games in Lillehammer, Norway, American speed skater Dan Jansen ended his 10-year history of falling in the Olympics by finally getting a gold medal. Home-country hero and medical student Johann Olav Koss won three speed skating gold Medals – all in world-record time – and donated his bonus from the Norwegian government to Doctors Without Borders. Oksana Baiul, a 16-year-old orphan from Ukraine, won figure skating gold.

But those feats in Lillehammer were overshadowed by the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan affair. People connected to Harding, a chain-smoking asthmatic from the wrong side of the tracks in Portland, Ore., organized at attack on Kerrigan in which she was wacked in the knee with a pipe.

Kerrigan recovered in time for the Games and skated brilliantly; Harding won a court battle to remain on the American team but skated poorly. Kerrigan gave the performance of her life but Baiul was simply better on that day. Of all the great achievements at the 1994 Winter Olympics, the enduring image is a photo of a distraught Harding showing her broken skate lace to a judge and asking for a do-over.

On June 13, the Monday before the U.S. Open golf tournament was to begin at Oakmont Country Club near Pittsburgh, authorities found the bodies of Nicole Brown Simpson, the ex-wife of football great, actor and pitchman O.J. Simpson, and her friend Ron Goldman. They were stabbed to death the night before in her Los Angeles home.

On June 14, the New York Ranges, one of the original six teams in the National Hockey League, won their first Stanley Cup in 54 years. And on Friday June 17, Arnold Palmer missed the cut in his 32nd and final U.S. Open at Oakmont, just 35 miles from where he was born in Latrobe, Pa.

Palmer walked into the interview room at Oakmont that Friday, sat behind a table and faced a couple hundred reporters. Three times, Arnie tried to talk and each time his voiced cracked and he couldn’t go on. Finally, Palmer held up his hand and said: “Sorry boys, I can’t.”

As he got up to leave, the reporters violated the “no-cheering-in-the-press-box” creed and rose as one in a standing ovation. In 37 years as a sports writer, that’s the only time I ever applauded in the interview room. The man who always gave us everything needed had no words to describe his emotions on that day.

On Monday, June 20, a new star emerged in golf when 24-year-old Ernie Els of South Africa won the U.S. Open in a three-way playoff with Colin Montgomerie, who was eliminated after 18 holes, and Loren Roberts, who fell in sudden death on the 20th hole.

But when people remember that week, overshadowing the Rangers and Palmer and Els is the June 17 slow-motion Bronco chase of Simpson, whose attempt to flee did not sway a jury that acquitted him of double murder. That televised chase was the beginning of the decline of broadcast news coverage into its current state in which “news” is defined as anything that’s “caught on camera.”

In July and August, Nick Price of Zimbabwe won the British Open and the PGA Champion and was the clear player of the year in men’s golf. A teenager named Tiger Woods won the first of three consecutive U.S. Amateur championships. Beth Daniel won four times and was the LPGA Player of the Year, the last American to take that honor until Stacy Lewis in 2012. The Rookie of the Year was Annika Sorenstam of Sweden and since then Beth Bauer in 2002 and Paula Creamer in 2005 are the only Americans to capture the honor.

When a strike by the Major League Baseball Players Association shut down the season after the games of Aug. 11, Tony Gwynn was batting .394, Ken Griffey Jr. had hit 40 home runs, Greg Maddux had put 16 games in the win column with an ERA of 1.56 and the Montreal Expos had the best record at 74-40. But on Sept. 14 it was announced that for the first time since 1904 there would be no World Series.

The good abounded in 1994: Koss, Jansen, Baiul and Kerrigan; Palmer, Price, Woods, Els, Daniel and Sorenstam; Gwynn, Maddux, the Expos and Junior. But the bad and the ugly owned the news cycle: Tonya, OJ and the World Series that wasn’t.

Thirty years ago, in 1994, the line between the sports section and the news section of papers began to fade. A few years later, when steroids raised their ugly head, it was erased. And a few years after that, newspapers began to disappear. It all started 30 years ago, in 1994.



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