It’s fitting that, just weeks away from a new Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, that ESPN‘s amazing “30 for 30” documentary series would turn its attention to the scandal that rocked the Winter Olympics 20 years ago: the 1994 attack on figure skater Nancy Kerrigan that was organized and carried out by associates of Kerrigan’s rival (on the ice and off) Tonya Harding. The resulting documentary, “The Price of Gold” (airing tonight on ESPN) is a brilliant, oftentimes heartbreaking examination of the external pressures and internal psychology that led to the violent attack, full of wonderful new interviews and telling archival footage.
While most remember the attack and the resulting media circus, few probably had any understanding of the events that led it, something that director Nanette Burnstein (“Going The Distance,” “American Teen“) and her editors make clear in striking detail. The rivalry between Kerrigan and Harding was so vivid because the two skaters were so alike, both were born into families without much means. But while Kerrigan nimbly transformed herself, refining her rough edges and taking on the poise of traditional ice skaters (the amount of times the word “princess” is thrown around here is truly incredible), Harding remained true to her hardscrabble roots. Harding was tough, with frizzy, bleached-out hair, a somewhat ratty face and garish costumes that she stitched together herself.
Still, Harding managed to dazzle. A number of the interviewees here, including Connie Chung and Scott Hamilton, openly goggled at the recollection of Harding landing a triple axle, something that no other female skater had achieved. And leading up to the Olympics, this time held in Lillehammer, Norway, she seemed unstoppable. Harding might have seemed like something of a brute, but her talent was undeniable. But as Chung says, “Nancy fit the mold – she was perfect.” The result was, that while Kerrigan lacked the raw talent of Harding, she racked in the endorsement deals and sponsorship, while Harding, a frontrunner for Olympic gold, still practiced in the crummy skating rink at her local shopping mall. Desperation glittered on Harding like the sequins of her kitschy costumes.
So when Kerrigan was viciously attacked, suspicion immediately fell on Harding (Kerrigan’s trainer claims to have had an almost preternatural inkling). Everyone knew that Harding had come from the wrong side of the tracks and had married a thuggish lowlife named Jeff Gillooly. Almost immediately, the amateurishness of the thugs involved gave way to arrests, and pretty soon Gillooly, a beefy twenty-something bodyguard named Shawn Eckhardt (whose doltish bragging tightened the noose for the investigation), and an acquaintance named Shane Stant were all arrested for conspiring to carry out the assault. Harding, however, maintained that she knew nothing of the incident and was actually able to compete for the gold during the Norwegian Olympics… on the same team as Kerrigan.
The bulk of “The Price of Gold” comes from an incredibly candid, lengthy interview with Harding, who is now middle-aged and remarried and who stands by her innocence and goes into detail about what happened during the investigation and the Olympics. Any way you slice it, the story is tragic, and the irony is thickly applied. As a number of the other interviewees suggest, not only was that Olympic ice skating competition the most watched game in the history of the Olympics, but the scandal was also responsible for the enduring popularity of ice skating, one that continues to be as strong as ever, two decades on. Harding, of course, was banned from competing in the sport professionally, and so the young woman who clawed her way to the top and nearly got the Olympic gold, never made a dime from skating.
In the interviews, Harding comes across as a deeply conflicted woman, one full of rage and resentment for what she views as a kind of cosmic case of bad luck. She was born penniless, and saw ice-skating as her chance to escape the poverty and abuse of her home life. In one priceless bit of archival footage, news crews capture Harding receiving a phone call from her mother following a qualifying competition. Harding had placed well earlier in the day but not blown away the judges; as she picks up the phone you can see horror spread across her face, and after she puts down the receiver Harding recounts that her mother had spent those brief moments on the phone berating her daughter. Harding is sad, but full of the steely resolve that would partially be responsible for getting her into hot water later on.
Burnstein frames the scandal amidst bigger issues of class and leaves adequate wiggle room for Harding’s story to actually be true. Towards the end of the documentary, a childhood friend of Harding’s who is interviewed extensively throughout and paints a fairly sympathetic, heartbreaking portrait of the skater, says that Harding must have had something to do with the attack. (Harding later pled guilty to obscuring the investigation immediately after Kerrigan was whacked on the knee.) Kerrigan, for her part, gets to maintain the gauzy allure of the ice princess, since she declined to be interviewed (her husband, trainer, and several friends, however, are present and accounted for). In a weird way, following the attack, Kerrigan had to find her inner Harding, a woman so full of resolve and moxie that she wasn’t going to let some silly, violent act slow her down. In the media circus that followed, Kerrigan kept out of the spotlight, focusing solely on her training, while Harding was both bolstered and burned by the attention. After all, she still had to train at that dinky shopping center skate rink. Only this time, every square inch of space was crammed full of journalists, reporters, and photographers. Harding was all anybody could talk about. Until one day, she wasn’t. “The Price of Gold,” as sharp as a pair of new skates, gives context and humanity to a case that always seemed like the punch line to a very sad joke. [A]
“Price Of Gold” airs tonight on ESPN at 9 PM.