Wednesday, January 15, 2014
Reasons 'Why': The Price of Gold
Before she became a villain in one of sports' weirdest scandals, Tonya Harding was figure skating's ugly duckling. Raised in Oregon by a physically and emotionally abusive mother, she was a skater who came from modest means and looked like it. Acted like it, too. Competing in a sport that celebrates elegance and finesse, Harding was rough and tumble. In The Price of Gold, the latest in ESPN Films' "30 for 30" series, Harding is described as coming from the "gutter." She's compared to an "alley cat" and called a "trailer trash ignoramus." Eventually, even Harding gets in on it, noting that the media portrayed her as a "piece of crap" juxtaposed against skating's "princess," Nancy Kerrigan. If life were a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, Harding would have gone to the Olympics in Lillehammer, skated up to her incredible potential, won gold and transformed into a swan in front of our eyes. And maybe then Harding would have liked the sight of her own reflection. Alas, Harding's fairy tale was destined to be Grimm. So instead, the ugly duckling got together with some loons and decided to disfigure the prettiest swan on the pond.
Even in retrospect the Harding-Kerrigan melodrama is stranger than fiction, except that all the players seemed straight out of central casting. The tomboyish, insecure blonde who honed her skills at a shopping mall skating rink. The pretty, poised brunette with the endorsement deals and the (misleading) air of privilege. The scheming husband, with the dark eyes and the mustache almost long enough to twirl. The goon accomplices who looked like they could get lost in a phone booth, assuming they could figure out how to get inside one. All of them came together under the bright spotlight of the pre-Internet Era Winter Olympics. Director Nanette Burstein (American Teen) recounts the events of 1994 with impressive clarity and pace, chronicling not just what happened but the media's frenzied reaction to it, because indeed that was a distinct element of this tabloid-worthy scandal right from the start. Those too young to remember the whack heard round the world will come away with a clear understanding of how it all unfolded. But what's most impressive about The Price of Gold is that it's more than a transcript. It looks beyond the highlights and lowlights to try to understand why.
I'm not sure most of us really considered the "why" back in 1994, which is odd considering that the most indelible image of the entire affair is Kerrigan, a few seconds removed from being clubbed on the knee, lying on the concrete floor of an ice arena screaming that very question. Partly we were distracted by all the questions about what Harding knew and when she knew it. But more than that, I suspect we thought we knew the answer. Why club Kerrigan? Because Harding was insecure about her skating and wanted to eliminate the competition. Simple as that, right? Except Burstein's film makes it clear that it isn't. For starters, even at that point Harding's skating ability might have been the thing she was most confident about. But the bigger misperception is that this was only about sports — about victory, about glory, about being a champion. Harding wanted all of that, but more so she was desperate for what came with it. Validation that she wasn't a piece of trash, for one thing. Financial rewards most of all.
If that sounds shallow, consider that the United States had two viable gold medal candidates in Kerrigan and Harding (Harding had been a 1990 U.S. Champion, and she was the first woman to land a triple axel in competition), and yet the sport seemed interested in marketing only one of them. Kerrigan already had endorsement deals. Harding, on the other hand, had married into more poverty. Then in her mid-20s, this would be Harding's last chance to win the lottery via Olympic metamorphosis. Emboldened by a husband, Jeff Gillooly, who likely saw Harding has his meal ticket, eliminating the stiffest competition with a swift blow to the knee must have seemed like sound financial planning.
Nothing justifies the assault, of course. It was a crime, pathetic and despicable. But in this era of millionaires battling millionaires in professional sports, it's helpful to be reminded that at the Olympics a gold medal can mean the difference between a lot and nothing at all. Harding felt that. And Burstein allows us to feel a measure of sympathy for the poor girl surrounded by poor influences who was marginalized by her sport for not looking the part. No doubt, Harding likely played a role in her ostracism long before she ever met Gillooly, and Burstein makes that clear, too, not with bitter backstage gossip from people who never liked Harding in the first place but with Harding's own damning testimony.
David Frost said that Richard Nixon's fundamental flaw was his "dislocated relationship with truth," and the same could be said of Harding, who continues to insist that she had no prior knowledge of the attack on Kerrigan. Watching her interviews in The Price of Gold is not unlike watching Nixon sitting down with Frost and desperately clinging to a lie that only he believes. But as I watched Harding continuing to proclaim her innocence, repeatedly portraying herself as a victim and even going so far as to argue that Kerrigan is the bitch in this story ("I thought we were friends," she says of Kerrigan shunning her after the attack, "that's rude"), I was repeatedly reminded of The Office's Michael Scott. Because like the beloved bumbling boss at Dunder Mifflin, when Harding talks you can see the wheels turning and spot flashes of genuine pride over what's coming out of her mouth — stuff that sounds convincing to her ears only. It would be hilarious if it wasn't so tragic. In the end, Kerrigan's refusal to be interviewed by Burstein turns out to be both fitting (Kerrigan avoided the talking about the episode even as it was unfolding) and genius. Every minute Kerrigan isn't on screen is another for Harding to be under the microscope. And every minute on screen for Harding adds another inch to the rope she uses to hang herself. As if she wasn't dangling from the noose of public opinion already.
For her crimes of action and denial, Harding deserves all the scrutiny that can be thrown her way. "Wounded Knee" ultimately resulted in greater fame and fortune for Kerrigan than she would have enjoyed otherwise, but if she hadn't been able to win gold only months after the attack she would have been robbed of what to that point had been her life's main goal. Still, Burstein's documentary makes it clear that Harding had been a victim, too. Many times, in many ways. And in its honest examination of Harding's career, The Price of Gold deftly exposes a reality that should make us uncomfortable: figure skating is the rare sport in which we aren't compelled to root for the underdog, because that would ruin the aesthetic. Harding didn't fit the mold, and while she ultimately dug her own grave it probably wasn't the first time someone wanted her buried.
On that note, it's worth recalling that in the first volume of "30 for 30" documentaries, sprinter Marion Jones was held up as a positive example of someone who learned from her mistakes and came clean. But from where I sit, in John Singleton's film Jones followed the same playbook that Harding does here: admit to the stuff there isn't room left to deny and blame the rest on the crooked ex-husband. That's easier for Jones to get away with. She's attractive, charming and well spoken. Harding can't pull it off. She didn't fall from grace, because grace was never hers. She just fell.
The Price of Gold premieres January 16 on ESPN at 9 pm ET. Read other "30 for 30" reviews.