The Price of Gold
2014 • 78 minutes • ESPN Films
Figure skating is the only Olympic sport I’ve ever actually gotten behind, culminating in the 2010 Winter Olympics being a very strange centerpiece to my sophomore year of college. (To this day, I have a macro of a tanning bed bellowing “FEED ME EVAN LYSACEK” that makes me laugh out loud.) Of all the sports represented at the Olympics, it’s the most overtly aesthetic and artistic. It’s also one of the most aggressively coded feminine sports, alongside gymnastics.
That makes figure skating densely symbolic in ways that other sports aren’t (or are in different ways), especially in terms of gender and class. During the 2010 Winter Olympics, two Canadian commentators said that Johnny Weir should take a gender test because his skating style was so flamboyant. (They later apologized.) I remember being particularly fascinated that year with American figure skater’s Evan Lysacek’s performance of gender—a lot of the material surrounding him seemed hilariously anxious to prove his masculine bonafides, especially in counterpoint to Weir. Lysacek won gold that year, soothing American masculinity’s precious nerves.
Similarly, the Nancy Kerrigan-Tonya Harding rivalry in American women’s figure skating in the early nineties was both about the two skaters and about acceptable performances of gender, class, and physical prowess. On one hand, there’s elegant, graceful, feminine Kerrigan, an ice princess of the highest order. On the other hand, there’s athletic, tomboyish, sometimes abrasive Harding, from the wrong side of the tracks. And then there’s the famous act of violence that linked them together forever and affected their lives in very different ways.
But this is too neat a read on the situation. I was too young to know about or care about the Kerrigan-Harding feud when it happened, so I’ve largely absorbed the story by pop cultural osmosis. And the story I learned was that Harding was jealous of Kerrigan and kneecapped her. Kitschy, almost campy, as best expressed by the fact that there’s a comedic hallway museum in Brooklyn devoted to the story. I didn’t know anything else about it—not about the context of the attack (it took place at the 1994 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, which is where the Olympic team was announced), not about the Herculean feat of physical therapy Kerrigan pulled off to not only compete but take silver at the 1994 Olympics, and not the fact that Harding was banned from ever skating in competition again.
Nanette Burstein’s contribution to ESPN’s 30 for 30 series of documentaries, The Price of Gold, opens with an examination of this subtext, after subjecting the audience to the footage of the immediate aftermath of Kerrigan’s attack. (“Subject” may make it sound gratuitous—it isn’t, but there’s something so harrowing about Kerrigan’s childish, blood-curling cries of pain that makes it difficult to watch.) The overt examination of this subtext is all too brief, although it colors the entire documentary. Kerrigan declined to be interviewed for The Price of Gold, which means that it’s largely Harding’s show. But that doesn’t mean that The Price of Gold believes Harding, who only ever admitted to hiding the truth of the attack after it happened. It never takes a stance, although it does end with several of the talking heads discussing their own feelings on the subject.
Ultimately, The Price of Gold is a look at how figure skaters are asked to play the game of figure skating—of pretending it isn’t as athletic and exhausting as it is, of having enough money and taste to select and purchase the “correct” costumes and music, of being “correctly” feminine per American standards at that very moment.
Harding didn’t know how to play that game—up to and including the attack, which was such a knuckle-headed maneuver on everyone’s part. The ideas of Kerrigan as triumphant victim and Kerrigan as comeback queen were not only easily absorbed into her narrative, but made her even more wholesome, even more pure. When Kerrigan lost the gold, she came back There’s no excusing what Harding—or her associates—did (or did not do), but The Price of Gold finds something, if not sympathetic, understandable about Harding’s intense jealousy of Kerrigan.
Ultimately, I’m left with the harrowing image of the aftermath of the attack—not Kerrigan’s soul-piercing cries of pain, but Kerrigan painstakingly performing her physical therapy in a private facility while Harding trains for the Olympics in the ice rink at the Clackamas Town Center mall in front of fans, rubberneckers, and the press. When a camera flash goes off, Harding fails a jump, slamming into the wall, seemingly unprepared for the attention she’s always wanted.
I watched this film on Netflix.