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.


Michael said...

I don't know if I'll have the time to watch this, but I recently read an excellent piece in The Believer while watching the skating performances (for the first time), receiving the story for the first time. Incredible.

jake said...

Awesome write-up. I cringe reading it, because I remember it being semi-traumatic as a kid seeing it all happen live. Ugh, I don't know if I could revisit this, but I sure did enjoy your post. Thanks a lot.

Craig said...

I caught the second half of this last night and... enjoyed it may not be the right phrase. I thought it was well-made, considering it's a subject I recall with distaste and was in no mood to revisit. One thing that mildly surprised me was the then-footage of Harding coming across less calculating and cynical than I thought originally. She is those things, to be sure, but there was also a sincere passion for skating and, as one of the interviewees pointed out, a cluelessness about exactly the depth of trouble she had gotten herself into. Still should have spent some time in prison.

I can see why the filmmakers wouldn't have wanted to bring this up about Kerrigan even if they believed it: Was she really that great a skater? I watched her mechanically proficient, fairly boring routines again and was reminded of my mom's muttering during the Olympics: "Glide...glide...glide...glide. She's a glider, nothing more." I didn't like the conspiracy theory trotted out at the end that the judges hoodwinked her out of the gold. Footage of Oksana Baiul's much more spirited and imaginative routine was conveniently left out to suggest this. But I remember her performance well enough to know that while skating is a subjective judgment, it wasn't on par with the U.S.-Russia basketball travesty in '72 Munich, which is what they seem to be indirectly implying. Still a gutsy performance just getting out there on the rink again, and enduring the Harding madness. I too thought Kerrigan was petty at the time that she didn't win the gold, but today I'm more inclined to take Scott Hamilton's view and give the girl a break (um...).

Jason Bellamy said...

Craig: It's definitely worth trying to see the first half, which has some pretty sobering footage of a Harding who is very young with very little foundation -- emotionally or financially.

As for Kerrigan: Yeah, I remember her as a glider, too, particularly in comparison to Harding. And, yeah, I suppose if you're going to raise the anti-American theory, it probably demands showing something from Baiul's performance other than her post-performance emotion. But I'm fine letting that one go as a fringe plot line in a documentary that isn't really about whether Kerrigan wins or loses but about what was done to prevent her from even trying. (And, yes, it's interesting that as much as American skating and corporate America tried to make Kerrigan the complete princess, it never really took. I recall the SNL she hosted being a disaster. And there was something about her manner of speaking that didn't fit the image -- all the better for her to glide and look pretty, and as the documentary makes clear, in skating that goes a long way. The film doesn't challenge Kerrigan specifically, but through the remarks about judges (might have been in the first half of the film), it's pretty clear that judges seem to be protecting the sport (their image of what's best for it) as much as evaluating what happens on the ice.

Jason Bellamy said...

P.S. Now they need to do the Nicole Bobek "30 for 30."

Craig said...

I think what I didn't like about that last part is it unwittingly underlined the entitlement of Kerrigan that Harding had always suspected and resented, not to mention the suggestion of U.S. commentators/analysts who, then and now, advanced the notion that Kerrigan "deserved" the gold because of what she went through. (A narrative they were advancing even before the incident.) It probably wouldn't have stood out as much had I watched the whole thing.

Richard Bellamy said...

This sounds like an excellent doc. about one of the most bizarre stories in sports history.

This was all over the news - constantly - on Cape Cod because Kerrigan was the darling of the Boston Area - born in Woburn, hometown Stoneham - and because of her Irish heritage. When she visited the Cape, she would skate at the rink in Dennis.

Kevin J. Olson said...

It would be hilarious if it wasn't so tragic.

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.

Yes. Tragic. Damn this movie just made me sad. I want to respond to this marginalization below:

This is great piece, Jason, and I'm glad I finally got a chance to catch up with this. I think the opening of the film is so important because it gives us much needed context. I really don't think there's anyway someone could honestly believe that Harding was totally innocent in this whole deal, but my God that opening footage is, as you say, "sobering."

It's too bad Harding was so far out of her element in regards to the attention she was getting. She could have represented something important in a sport that was all about girly-girls and grace, she was all about athleticism. And her athleticism was amazing. If she could have just had a better support system around her (many much younger than her have successfully navigated the media), she could have been a great representation for success despite not looking the right part, wearing the right clothes, or skating to the right music (like what Kerrigan did).

I think Americans love an underdog, and she could have been the ultimate avatar for that: if you're excellent at what you do, and you have a passion and a drive to succeed in whatever your vocation is, then who cares if you don't fit into that "proper" image.

Unfortunately (and I see this all the time with my students who have zero positive support in their lives), the people around her got the best of her, and it was just so obvious that she was out of her element through the whole thing (I can honestly believe a scenario where she agreed to the attack before she realized to have agreed to such a thing).

I like the way Craig said it: she had a sincere passion for skating, but she just couldn't handle the depths of her situation.

I was fascinated by the footage of the media and how they treated Harding, especially the stunt with the tow truck...oof.

I don't think anyone's opinion on whether or not Harding was guilty is going to be changed by this documentary, but I'm glad it exists for pointing out the fascinating and sad tale that is ultimately a story about class.

As for the Kerrigan stuff...whatever. Harding created that (allegedly), so you can't really blame the media for shaping the whole "Cinderella story derailed by politics" narrative. Oh, and my wife watched this with me and said basically the same thing you and Craig did about Kerrigan: she was boring to watch skate.

Zach Murphy said...

One of the few 30 for 30s I've yet to see, but I'm looking forward to checking it out.