It’s hard for me to think of a pop culture moment that was more important to my childhood than the 1994 Winter Olympics. In particular, I was obsessed with the ladies singles figure skating competition because of the rivalry between Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding, which had intensified into an attack on Kerrigan in the months before the Olympics. My cousins and I debated everything about the dynamic between the two women, from Harding’s impoverished childhood and the reports that she’d experienced domestic violence, to Kerrigan’s sulky remarks, caught on camera (as the immediate aftermath of the attack on her had been), after she lost the gold medal. As a nine-year-old, it was the first time I was aware of the possibility that spouses could abuse each other, and the reporting on the case helped fuel my nascent understanding of class.
So it’s tremendously exciting to see the Kerrigan-Harding rivalry arrive in the pantheon of ESPN’s 30 For 30 series with The Price Of Gold, a documentary from Nanette Burstein, which airs on the network tonight at 9 PM EST. Burstein, who was able to interview Harding and length and Kerrigan’s husband, as well as many other skating commentators, reporters, and law enforcement sources, has done an admirable job of capturing the complexities of the case. But as is the case with many of the entries in this series, The Price Of Gold left me wishing the documentary was longer, and had more room to extend its reach.
“There was poverty in this girl’s world that we need to understand,” Ann Schatz, a reporter who covered Harding’s career, explains. “She skated, a lot of times, without food in her stomach…She knew she was good at one thing and that was skating. She knew she could hang her hat on that one thing.” Sandra Luckow, a friend of Harding’s from childhood who is now a documentary filmmaker, made one of her first movies about Harding, and captures her friend, at fifteen, trying to push back against her mother’s harsh criticism on the phone, and describes accidentally catching Harding’s mother beating her with a hairbrush. In a contemporary interview, Harding is blunt about why she married Jeff Gillooly, who was her first real boyfriend. “I had to get away form my mother, and I feel for someone who was a few years older,” she says. “You know, he hit me, but she hit me, but they loved me.”
And Burstein captures the pressures Harding was under, both from the media and from her keen understanding of the economic dynamics of her sport. When a judge at a competition told Harding she shouldn’t wear a pink skating costume she’d made herself, Harding recalls that “I told them, if you can come up with $5,000 costume for me, then I won’t have to make it.” In the lead-up to the Olympics, when Nancy Kerrigan was snapping up endorsements, Harding tells reporters candidly “When it comes right down to it, I have these dollar signs in my head.” And Connie Chung, who interviewed Harding in Lillehammer as part of CBS’s coverage of the Olympics, and said CBS had a clear motive in focusing on the rivalry between the two women, said that Harding “knew if she won that Olympic gold that someone would have to ask her to be the face of something.”
But The Price Of Gold doesn’t present an easy narrative of Harding as a pure victim, though it doesn’t need to work hard to undermine her. Where she was often graceful and canny in press interviews after the attack on Kerrigan, Harding in an interview for the documentary says of Kerrigan’s disappointment in only winning silver says “She was the crybaby who didn’t win the gold. You know, I’m sorry. I’ve never said this before, but shut up.” It’s a jarring moment. And it’s even more damning when The Price Of Gold contrasts Harding’s insistence that a handwriting analysis during the investigation into the attack vindicated her with district attorney Norman Frink, chief deputy district attorney of Multnomah County, saying “It was identified as her handwriting. It was strong evidence of her involvement.” The contradiction throws every one of Harding’s assertions about her innocence into question.
Ultimately, The Price Of Gold strikes an appropriate balance, making clear that it’s possible for Harding to be a victim of domestic violence, driven by intense financial hunger inspired by an emotionally and economically deprived childhood, guilty at least of interfering with an investigation.
Where I wish The Price Of Gold was stronger is in its analysis of skating as an athletic feat. The film starts strongly enough with a succinct explanation of the contradiction baked into the women’s sport from Tony Kornheiser, who in 1994 was a Washington Post columnist and is now an ESPN host. “Although what they do is very athletic, the point is to make it look easy, that it’s not athletic, that it’s not a strain,” he explained. “You are wearing these costumes that are designed to make you look like a beauty pageant contestant, and it’s this very odd sport.”
And while there’s a perception that Kerrigan and Harding were different sorts of skaters, the film emphasizes that both were powerful jumpers who initially weren’t very interested in elegant choreography. Connie Chung describes Harding as “hard-bitten, gutsy, athletic. A phenomenal skater. She could jump higher, she could spin faster, and she was determined.” Harding’s strength and the fact that she became the first American woman to perform a triple axel in competition lead her to rely heavily on those jumps–when she couldn’t land them, the rest of her performances deteriorated.
And Kerrigan’s coach Mary Scotvold says “She was a beautiful skater, but she was a really superior athlete. She jumped so easily that she didn’t look difficult when she did it.” In other words, both skaters had tremendous raw ability, but Kerrigan was more willing to adopt the formal grace asked of female skaters, and possessed the ability to do exactly what Kornheiser said was necessary: to disguise her own strength and capacity. Kerrigan benefitted from a more stable family background than Harding did, and she was more willing, and perhaps more able to adapt to the expectations of both judges and audiences (it doesn’t hurt that Vera Wang donated her Olympic costumes to her).
The Price Of Gold discusses the theory that the Olympic judges, sick of the rivalry between Kerrigan and Harding, threw the gold medal to Ukranian skater Oksana Baiul, who was 16 at the time, and explains how the skating circuit boomed after the 1994 Olympics. But it doesn’t touch on another consequence of Baiul’s win, an at least temporary drop in the age of subsequent Olympic ladies single skating champions, including 15-year-old Tara Lipinski. And It would have been fascinating– and a bracing reminder that these women, for all they’re encouraged to disguise it, really are athletes–to hear The Price Of Gold discuss how both Harding and Kerrigan, for whom the Kerrigan Spiral is named, influenced the programs of the skaters who followed them.
After all, as Harding explained, “I was never after being an ice princess. I wasn’t a dainty little girl. I was the strong, buff woman.” And the Harding-Kerrigan rivalry wasn’t a catfight, but the result of a fierce competition between athletes who wanted not just the prestige of the top place on the Olympic podium but what Kornheiser calls the “gold in the gold medal.”