By Mike Dub
Price of Gold is the latest installment of ESPN’s “30 for 30” series of feature-length documentaries that focus on the biggest and most important sports stories of the last thirty years. To commemorate, so to speak, the twentieth anniversary of the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan figure skating scandal, Price of Gold offers a detailed look back at the events surrounding one of the strangest sports events of ESPN’s lifetime.
For those who don’t remember, in the run-up to the 1994 Olympics, American figure skater and sweetheart Nancy Kerrigan was violently attacked during the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. Just days later, Kerrigan’s rival, Tonya Harding, was implicated in the crime, igniting a tabloid sensation. Harding and Kerrigan still competed against each other in the Olympics, creating a real-life big-game climax for the entire world to behold. Tellingly, the best way to illustrate the social impact of the event is for the documentary to declare that the Kerrigan/Harding showdown was the “the highest-rated Olympic television programming of all time.”
The centerpiece of the film is an extensive interview with Tonya Harding herself (the film tells us that Kerrigan declined participation), as she describes everything from her abusive childhood, to her unstable marriage, to her experience during the Olympics, to the aftermath when her name became a lasting punch line for lazy comics – even President Obama used it jokingly at a rally not so long ago.
The most interesting moments of her story are the insights she provides about the inner workings of the world of figure skating. At one point, she recalls designing and sewing her own costume because she couldn’t afford the lavish costumes most of the other girls wore, only to be scolded after the competition by a judge who warned, “If you ever wear anything like that again at a U.S. championship, you will never do another one.” It is clear that not many young ladies use figure skating as a way to pull themselves out of the gutter. Indeed, most figure skaters are born closer to the penthouse.
The dichotomy between Harding and the rest of the figure skating community was exploited by journalists and network marketers at the time. If Harding’s skating style was aggressive, flashy, almost blue-collar in spirit, then Kerrigan’s was graceful, mannered, sound in technique and craft. Harding was rough around the edges, while Kerrigan was classically beautiful. Harding could have hocked engine oil, while Kerrigan’s face was plastered on Wheaties boxes.
Twenty years later, Price of Gold fails to move beyond the simple contrasts between the two skaters. Just as the journalists of the time reveled in the readymade clash of brute versus beauty, this film never bothers to explore a more nuanced approach to their relationship. In a peculiar moment, reporter Ann Schatz reminds us that Kerrigan was not actually from a wealthy family, but grew up closer to lower-middle class. Disregarding that information, the film continues to indulge interview subjects who lean on simple, diametric readings of the two skaters.
The film succeeds as a detailed, journalistic retelling of the events surrounding the infamous attack. However, lost in that journalistic objectivity is a nuanced perspective. Price of Gold could have been a more interesting personal profile, or even an expose on the ingrained corruption of the figure skating world (it is touched on, but only for a moment). Instead, it walks us down a rather banal path toward an obvious finale in which every participant is asked, “Do you think she did it?” A more interesting question might have been: after twenty years, does it really matter?