“You don’t have to listen very closely to realize we’ve been wrong for all these years. It’s not a difficult phrase to remember, and she repeats it again and again and again, clutching her knee as she rocks back and forth like a child hurt on a playground. It is, in fact, not a phrase at all, but a word—just one—and though we hear it mostly as a keening, inarticulate wail, it’s also impossible to mishear. The word is why.”
That’s the opening of Sarah Marshall’s extensive essay in The Believer on the infamous video footage of Nancy Kerrigan sprawled on the floor of a hallway at the Cobo Arena in Detroit just after she was attacked in January 1994. In all it’s wistful wonder, it conveys just how fascinated the country was and remains with the incident in that arena, but ESPN’s final 30 For 30 installment in the second batch of films doesn’t really pick at that question.
The Price Of Gold amounts to an examination of Tonya Harding’s life and career through the end of the 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer, featuring extensive interviews with Harding, and a kind of citizen’s re-investigation into what role, if any, Harding played in planning the assault beyond her guilty plea of hindering the investigation after the fact. It is not an evenhanded account of Harding and Kerrigan’s short-lived rivalry, since Kerrigan declined to participate in the film. (She’ll be a figure skating analyst at the Sochi games for NBC, and will break her “20-year silence” on the incident in the Peacock’s own documentary with Mary Carillo.)
But that makes sense. Kerrigan was the victim in the attack, but she’s not really part of the story until that moment. She won silver in Lillehammer, and went on to make a lot of money from professional skating—but The Price Of Gold is more concerned with everything that led to that incident from the murkier side of the attackers. Handcuffed by only having access to Harding, director Nanette Burstein (American Teen, On The Ropes) zeroes in on that side of the story, bringing in childhood friends, local news reporters, and sportswriters who covered figure skating as complements to the big-ticket interview.
At the outset, Burstein rolls through Harding’s intial foray into skating. She came from a tough family, with an abusive mother and a struggling father. She was preternaturally gifted at skating, according to both her coach and a childhood friend who filmed a lot of home movies. Harding comes off as a gifted skater without the means to pay for what she needed to get the most out of her talent. Though a successful young skater competing on a national level, she traded her mother for an abusive husband, the now infamously-named Jeff Gillooly. All of this backstory is designed to engender some small amount of sympathy. It doesn’t excuse anything, but it does help to explain why Harding was so desperate to succeed as a figure skater, the one thing that made her exceptional and able to combat those who looked down on her. She was so single-minded about making it big as a skater, even if financial stability was a relative impossibility.
The most insightful observations in the documentary cover the criteria figure skating judges and the American viewing public value in female figure skaters. Burstein’s array of talking heads lay this out matter-of-fact: America wants an ice princess, who looks graceful and swanlike on the ice, and can jump while hiding the strenuous effort involved in displays of physical skill. The brief tangent to highlight Kerrigan’s progression from blue-collar skater who loves jumping to the look of a champion shows how someone can succeed by playing the right game while being lucky to have the right physical gifts.
First and foremost an athlete, Harding wasn’t a sponsor’s dream, and unable to afford the flashy designer costumes that would appeal to the “artistic” portion included in judges’ scores. Billy Jean King and Serena Williams faced the same kind of prejudice in tennis. The big difference is that tennis matches are won or lost directly against an opponent (even with line judges), while skating is an individually judged competition including an aesthetic score in addition to the physical feats. Gymnastics and diving are judged as well, but far more weight is given to execution of physical feats of strength and skill. (In that way, perhaps the only Olympic events similar to skating are synchronized swimming and rhythmic gymnastics.)
Harding was the first American female skater to execute a triple axel in competition. It’s the jump that won her a national title in 1991 and got her to the 1992 Olympics. But after that moment of victory, her life began to affect her focus. On the one hand, yes, the system was designed to favor more graceful skaters, with judges personally telling her nto to wear certain costumes and suggesting music choices they would like to hear, which is just ridiculous. On the other, Harding simply couldn’t execute the jumps that she needed to undeniably prove herself the better skater regareless of the skating community’s opinion of what a champion should look and skate like. Gold makes it clear that when she didn’t have the off-ice problems and was able to land the triple axel, that her abilities trumped image. Once she couldn’t maintain that dominant jump, she was out of luck and desperate for a way to keep herself in contention.
After the attack, Kerrigan retreats into secrecy while attempting physical therapy on her leg. The behind-the-scenes footage of Kerrigan in training is basically the only new footage of her in the entire film. Her trainers sneak her out to a rink in the dead of night to avoid reporters, where she skates for the first time and proves that she can in fact compete at the Olympics. But the footage of Harding at her home rink in Oregon—located in the middle of a shopping mall—is even more fascinating. The parallel symbolism of Kerrigan skating around a rink in the middle of the night and Harding practicing with hundreds of cameras around her speaks to the personalities of the two skaters, and why Harding may have faltered.
All of this culminates in the interviews about the criminal investigation into Harding, her husband, her “bodyguard,” and the men contracted to execute the attack. Harding is the only one who didn’t go to prison, pleading to a hindering prosecution charge. The overarching mystery of the story, and what perpetuates the fascination today, is the fact that nobody has really proven exactly who knew what and how the plan actually came together. Burstein has some excellent footage leading to the moment when she directly asks Harding about her involvement, and edits between Harding’s statements and the contradictory evidence offered by friends and investigators. Harding refutes that a piece of paper had her handwriting—cut to a district attorney saying a handwriting analysis proved it was Harding’s writing. She denies any involvement prior to the attack, saying “anyone who knows me” would know she didn’t participate; cut to the childhood friend, the voice of public opinion with personal knowledge of the subject, saying “of course” Harding knew and was involved with the plan.
Harding is more than just contradicted by the opinion of her childhood friend. Deadspin tracked down Jeff Gillooly. He’s not a credible source either, but it adds to all of the other opinions in the film. The Price Of Gold comes down hard on the side of believing Harding was heavily involved and has been lying for two decades, and it’s structured to make her look like a hypocrite (when she takes jabs at Kerrigan’s sour grapes after winning a silver medal) and a liar when it comes to basic facts about the case.
But of all people, it’s Pardon The Interruption co-host and former Washington Post columnist Tony Kornheiser who presses the topic of the story’s importance to the way sports are covered by the media today. The attack on Kerrigan took place about six months before the fateful June 17 featured in 30 For 30’s greatest episode to date. That’s a bit of a lost thread to Burstein. In eschewing perhaps the bigger topics—the scandal’s impact on the popularity of figure skating in the ensuing two decades, the growing ability to report about out-of-competition aspects of athlete’s lives on televisions, or the seeds of modern reality television—the documentary actually becomes a lot like that dogged news coverage from the mid-90’s staking out Harding wherever she goes. Gold is obsessed with pinning down Harding as an unreliable source of information and pinning down that her story doesn’t line up with evidence or public opinion.
As a portrait of Harding as a walking contradiction, The Price Of Gold has fleeting moments of brilliance. The subtle comparison between Hardin and Kerrigan’s practice regimens before the Olympics, and all the childhood footage of Harding offer intriguing avenues around the attack. It doesn’t get to the bottom of anything or truly reveal new information; it ends where public opinion left it when the story faded away into the recesses of popular consciousness. But at this milestone, it’s a compelling summary of one side, and a comprehensive assembly of the evidence against Tonya Harding’s answers.
- For further study, Slate’s Hang Up And Listen podcast did a segment on the film this week that is definitely worth a listen.
- Tony Kornheiser is so excited to talk about the story it’s basically like he’s transported back to 1994 in his featured moments. The guy is so clearly engrossed in how the story gripped the nation.
- To this day, the 1994 women’s figure skating competition is the highest-rated Olympic telecast in America—when CBS owned the rights. NBC would kill for a scandal like that to boost ratings.