ESPN's The Price of Gold: TV Review
9 p.m. Thursday, January 16 (ESPN)
Steven Michaels, Jonathan Koch
The ESPN Films documentary, from their highly acclaimed "30 for 30" series, explores the scandal of the Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding figure skating rivalry.
On the eve of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, ESPN's 30 for 30 documentary series has created a comprehensive account of the event, 20 years ago, that shocked and captivated a nation, and then the world. The scandal of the 1994 attack of figure skater Nancy Kerrigan by associates of her rival, Tonya Harding, made the figure skating finals that year in Lillehammer, Norway, one of the most-watched televised sporting events in American history.
The Price of Gold follows the careers of both Harding and Kerrigan that led up to that fateful day, as well as an examination of the fallout afterwards, including Kerrigan's comeback, and Harding's meltdown.
Familiar faces like Connie Chung, Tony Kornheiser, Scott Hamilton and others also weigh in on the drama of the scandal, and The Price of Gold does a great job of highlighting the media's circus-like involvement in making "the whack heard around the world" into just that. Chung, in particular, mentions how the drama was a godsend for CBS, which was broadcasting the games, because, as another commentator put it, "it was like Dynasty in real life."
Nanette Burstein's excellent direction makes the documentary engaging and clear (which is difficult given the twists). It is also a treasure trove of archival footage, which visually reinforces the driving point, then and now, about the different classes that Harding and Kerrigan were perceived to be from. Though both women were from working-class backgrounds, Kerrigan embodied a grace and glamour typically associated with figure skating, while Harding was considered "an ugly duckling" from the wrong side of the tracks. Kerrigan accepted endorsement deals and was beloved as "an ice princess," but Harding's chip on her shoulder gave her a hardness and an attitude that made her an outsider in the sport.
Harding's talent could not be denied, though, and The Price is Gold is very fair in its assessment of her -- through coaches, sports writers and others who knew her at the time -- and her abilities, that were later ruined by the scandal she found herself caught up in. There's a strong sense of Harding being a victim of a lifetime of poor choices, but at some point, responsibility must be taken for some of those choices, and that's not something she seems interested in. Unlike Kerrigan, who declined to be interviewed, Harding tells every piece of the story from her perspective. That perspective is made clear in moments when she says things like, "They did a handwriting analysis and ... it wasn't mine," which is immediately juxtaposed with an investigator saying, "We did a handwriting analysis, and it was definitely hers."
In this retelling, the old drama feels completely fresh again, reviving details that might have faded in viewers' minds over the last two decades. The inclusion of Harding (and her denials, be they true or false) in the program also keep the mystery alive. What did she know, and when did she know it? Or as Kerrigan famously wailed, "Why, why, why?"
As The Price of Gold reminds us in its swirling, in-depth consideration, Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan are linked together forever, with Harding's name in particular making a lasting impression as a punch line for the ages. What the excellent documentary also illustrates though is Harding's wasted talent, and the tragic circumstances of her life that she was never able to overcome. "There's gold in the gold medal," Kornheiser says about the sundry riches that befall the winners of it, which neither Harding nor Kerrigan achieved. The sadness of that fact, for many reasons, is still something that makes the story compelling, even decades later.