“Why me?” sobbed figure skater Nancy Kerrigan after being whacked on the leg by a assailant wielding a lead pipe as she left practice. Cameras captured the scene as supporters comforted the wounded Olympic-hopeful. Back in 1994, these images were the first shots in a media circus that would go on for months and get far more complicated than anyone could have imagined. The incident became a nationwide if not international sensation, bringing even more, mostly negative, attention to the already widely popular sport. It also touched off an ugly conversation about class, inspired a cheesy telemovie and now, twenty years later, The Price of Gold, an excellent, well-rounded ESPN documentary by Nanette Burstein.
Other than the archival footage of Kerrigan, the words “why me” are never heard again in the film. However, twenty years later, the question always seems to be on the tip of the tongue of the real subject of the film, rival skater Tonya Harding. The film is a real showcase for Harding to recount the incident from her perspective and essentially lay claim to her own status as a victim of circumstance and prejudice. Harding feels that she has been wronged even if she was the one accused of wrongdoing.
Following the almost instant unraveling of a weak plot, it emerged that Harding’s then husband Jeff Gilooly and her bodyguard, Shawn Eckhardt, had hired another man, Shane Stant, to attack Kerrigan in an effort to knock her out of the Olympics and pave the way to a gold medal for Harding. Though she claimed no prior knowledge of the plot and was never proven to have been involved, Harding was ultimately found guilty of obstructing justice when she finally admitted to knowing what happened after the fact. She got probation, was stripped of her national championship title and banned from ever competing in the sport or performing professionally.
Harding was a genuinely talented skater, landing in the record books for being the first American skater to land the incredibly difficult triple Lutz, an achievement that notched her the championship, a shot at the Olympics and potentially millions of dollars worth of endorsements. She was also an unabashedly tough-talking blue-collar kid with an attitude that stood in stark contrast with the image of figure skaters that Team U.S.A wanted to present. Figure skaters are, in the words of one journalist, the “Barbie dolls of sports,” ice princesses. Even the similarly working class Kerrigan knew how to turn on the charm and play the part, something Harding could not seem to do even had she wanted to.
If Tonya Harding has one not-so-hidden talent, it is making herself look bad. Nobody can make Tonya Harding look bad as well as Tonya herself and, as the film amply demonstrates. If anything, over the years, she’s gotten even better at it. Harding claims that the deck was stacked against her from day one. She recounts a story of a skating judge criticizing her for the racy pink costume that she had made for herself because she could not afford a $5,000 costume. The judge told Harding that if she ever dared to showed up in a costume like it, she would never be allowed to compete again.
But maybe “bad” is relative. Tonya Harding seems wildly comfortable with herself, where she comes from, where she has been and where she stands today. Maybe we are supposed to cheer Harding on for sticking to her guns and remaining true to herself—even if that means once being surrounded by thugs who plot to literally knock rivals out of competition.
If Burstein has an agenda here, she wisely keeps it to herself. The documentary does what any good film should do, it presents material, engages, then provokes the audience and dares them to make up their own minds. The film never demonizes Harding and, in fact, presents an almost frustratingly even-handed portrait of her. As was the case in 1994, today it is likely that some viewers come away from the film on Team Harding and others will stick with Team Kerrigan.
While the meat of the film is simply listening to Harding, various journalists, coaches and former skaters, as well as Kerrigan’s husband and Harding’s childhood best friend. are also interviewed. The film almost benefits from the absence of any contemporary footage of Kerrigan. Her abstraction from the twentieth anniversary examination of the incident renders her almost mythic, a character choosing to remain frozen in time while currently biting her tongue. Of course, to be fair, Burstein includes Kerrigan’s brief moment in an unflattering light when she was famously caught on camera bitching about heavily made up Gold medalist Oksana Baiul taking too much time to re-apply her “face” when she was just going to cry it all off on the podium. If the moment is any insight into the “real” Kerrigan, it is just that, a moment. The rest of the film belongs to Tonya Harding, an athlete who, for better or worse, simply would not play the game.