By Katie Walsh
Chances are, figure skating has started to creep back into your consciousness with the impending approach of the Sochi Olympics. I know I was pleasantly surprised to find the Olympic trials on NBC, reminding me of when I used to stay up till all hours to watch Kristi Yamaguchi skate and of how my Ukrainian grandma never missed a minute of Oksana Baiul.
Also, for the 20th anniversary of the incident, there’s ESPN’s The Price of Gold, an episode of their excellent 30 for 30 series that examines the notorious and unforgettable Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan kneecapping scandal that tainted the 1994 Winter Olympics. Riveting and illuminating, the documentary features extensive interviews with Harding herself, as well as others close to the incident, and shows the other side of the story that rocked America and our collective obsession with the ice princesses of figure skating.
Directed by Nanette Burstein, The Price of Gold expertly utilizes archival footage from the period (the perms and sequins alone are worth the price of admission) and interviews with friends, coaches, reporters and investigators from both sides of the sordid tale. Most compelling of all, though, is Harding, who remains as fierce and brassy as ever, fluttering her long red lacquered nails, and adamantly defending herself. In the archival footage, she has the hardened look of a mean girl straight from a John Waters movie (weep for the missed opportunities), all poofy blonde ponytails and unrefined ferocity, endearing in her hardscrabble determination.
The true life tale is really a tragedy of Greek proportions, a storyline that no soap opera writer could ever have dreamed up. Bitter arch-rivals, Harding was the powerhouse blonde from the wrong side of the tracks while willowy brunette Kerrigan represented East Coast glam. As I’m sure you all remember, after a practice for the U.S. National Championships, Kerrigan stepped alone into a dark hallway, where she was bludgeoned in the knee by a mysterious man (Harding went on to win the championship). If you watched ANY television in 1994, Kerrigan’s cries of “whyyyyeeeee” should be etched into your frontal lobe. It quickly came out that the bludgeoner was a thug hired by Harding’s husband’s friend, and she soon found herself fighting for her Olympic spot as a media circus arose around the two women.
The film is about the details of the case, the surrounding international attention and the effect that had on the Olympics, that hallowed hallmark of merit, but it’s really a film about an underdog. Perhaps it’s because Kerrigan declined to be interviewed (her husband and agent appears in the film), but you really start to find yourself empathizing and rooting for Harding. Growing up poor, abused by her mother and her nefarious, no-good husband, Jeff Gillooly, Harding’s talent and hard work are undeniable. But, her less than refined style and outspoken nature didn’t fit with corporate ice skating’s preferred image, and she remained an outsider, without the many sponsorships that Kerrigan enjoyed. After the incident, she was completely banned from the sport, denied any opportunity to make money off her skating skills.
The film is also about how men can be really shitty to women sometimes. First of all, there’s the hideous, violent attack on Kerrigan, sloppily engineered by a couple of bumbling goombas. Then there’s the stuttering and rattled mess that the brassy Harding becomes in the wake of the scandal and all of the media attention, thanks to her emotionally manipulative husband. That these jerks could almost effectively destroy these talented women’s chances of Olympics glory (and did ruin one’s career) is maddening. Whether or not Harding was involved in the planning of the attack remains a mystery — the film would rather focus on the effect that this had on these women’s careers.
While The Price of Gold is a compelling reminder of this absolutely insane moment in American Olympics history, it’s also a portrait of a woman who remains a household name. The film doesn’t seem entirely on Harding’s side, letting her speak for herself, for better or for worse, but it’s a fine investigation into the very real consequences that she suffered. Kerrigan comes off more as the golden gal that the media always portrayed her to be, which isn’t as even handed as the treatment that Harding gets, but ultimately the showcase allows us to see her in all her campy goddess glory. You’re either going to love or hate her, but it’s nice to see that her spark hasn’t entirely gone out.
The Price of Gold premieres on ESPN tonight at 9pm ET