THE PRICE OF GOLD Review: Of Lilies and Hammers
Mention the 1980 Winter Games in Lake Placid, you think of the USA Men’s Hockey Team’s “Miracle On Ice” victory over the Russians. The 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles invoke memories of the Soviet boycott and gymnast Mary Lou Retton‘s dramatic perfect score to win the all-around gold. The Barcelona Summer Games of 1992 are best identified not with one moment, but with one team: the “Dream Team,” that USA Men’s Basketball Team that was the first in this country’s history to field active NBA players (and, for my money, the greatest single athletic team ever fielded in the history of sports). Even the most recent contest, 2014’s Sochi Winter Games, will be remembered, uniquely, for the warmth of the climate.
But the 1994 Winter Games, held in Lillehammer, Norway, are best remembered not for what happened during them, but for what happened before them. Those were the games that followed the now-infamous moment at the US Nationals when Women’s Figure Skating darling Nancy Kerrigan suffered a blow to the knee at the hands of an unknown assailant, jeopardizing her Olympic dreams, thrusting the skating community into the media’s harsh spotlight, and turning the world’s attention on Kerrigan’s main rival (and prime suspect), Tonya Harding.
Harding, Kerrigan, the assault, the Olympics, and related events that happened before and after that fateful day are all part of director Nanette Burstein‘s documentary, The Price of Gold, a recent entry in ESPN’s sports-centric documentary film series, 30 For 30.
The film opens with the immediate aftermath of the January 6, 1994 assault on Kerrigan: the now-infamous footage of the skater, graceful in a white skating costume, sitting on the floor in the bowels of Cobo Arena in Detroit, clutching her knee and crying, “Why?” This is the story’s line of demarcation, establishing the point in time by which everything else is measured: before the assault (BA) and after the assault (AA).
With that moment set – with our memories refreshed – the film enters traditional documentary mode, focusing its BA attention on Harding’s life story from childhood. Numerous people are interviewed, including known personalities like television journalist Connie Chung and sports writer Tony Kornheiser, as well as unknowns from Harding’s past, including childhood friend Sandra Luckow, as well as other skating folks and local journalists.
The story told is one of a tomboy from the poor side of town. Harding, who lived a lower-middle-class life (when such a thing existed), was raised in part by a mother who was abusive and in part by a father who struggled to provide. Burstein drives home – and often – the dichotomy between hard-knocked skater and well-heeled skating. The sport is a pricey one, we are reminded by anyone on camera, requiring coaches and costumes and ice time. Harding had a coach, made her own clothing, and practiced not in a private facility, but at a public rink in a shopping mall. But money isn’t the only thing that makes the skating world do sit-spins. Kornheiser says it best when he says, “Worldwide female figure skaters are the Barbie Dolls of sports.” Harding was no Barbie, nor did she have the grace of the legends who came before her – skaters like Sonja Henie, Peggy Fleming, and Dorothy Hamill, all of whom are name-checked as examples of what Harding was not. No, Harding instead used power and athleticism to compensate for her shortages in the areas of beauty and grace. Power begot success which begot opportunities, and because of that, professional skating had no choice but to take notice.
The entire first half of the film – which also includes Harding’s romantic involvement with Jeff Gillooly (who is exposed as being controlling and abusive) – is an interesting study, not only for the story it tells, but also for how well-documented it is. Harding’s friend Luckow had the idea early in the skater’s career to videotape her as much as possible, so there is a fair quantity of what amounts to archival footage on display that shows Harding from age 6 forward. It also affords insight into the influence (read: power) that skating judges had over the skaters of her era – not only on the scoreboard, but also in making recommendations about music and costumes. It’s here that Harding’s rough edges show the most, revealing someone determined to buck the politics of the sport and succeed in spite of doing so.
The AA portion of the film is far less interesting, becoming more procedural in nature and reminiscent of a primetime news magazine entry than a documentary. There is testimony and evidence and press statements, with paparazzi footage of Harding sprinkled throughout to spice it up, but it’s all rather mundane (which is surprising, given how sensational it all is). On the plus side, during this half, there is more insight into Kerrigan. Because she did not participate in the documentary, her narrative is limited, but how she and her team managed the whole AA process is impressive.
There’s an overall tonal shift that occurs in the AA portion of The Price of Gold. While the first half has you practically rooting for against-all-odds Harding, the second half places her in a more critical light, questioning the former skater on the depth and breadth of her involvement in the Kerrigan attack. She is given ample screen time to defend and/or deflect allegations, and she does so to the point that you really can’t tell if she is telling the truth, lying, or so convinced that her lies are the truth that that’s all she knows anymore. (At one point, a fact she cites in support of her own innocence directly contradicts the same fact made by the prosecutor.)
The outcome of the 1994 Olympics (Ukraine’s Oksana Baiul won gold, Kerrigan silver, China’s Chen Lu bronze; Harding finished eighth) is almost a postscript, save for an odd case of sour grapes from the pro-Kerrigan interviewees. For most of the doc, these folks remain very fact-based, but once the timeline hits the Olympic results, more than one person suggests that some type of greater Olympic conspiracy was afoot. Harding’s post-skating career is glossed over, which is a shame. I know some of the things she has done (many of which are unflattering), but given that her rise and fall is so thoroughly documented, and given that she was such an active participant in the film, a look at what it all led to and why it led there would have been a great close.
If you did not live through the event (which was the most sensational thing in sports-related TV until a guy named O.J. Simpson went for a drive a few months later), the entire case is interesting and well-presented. If you did live through it, or if you are a student of the women’s skating scene, you can check out after the first half of the film.
The Price of Gold is the 59th entry (S2E16 for those of you who track things that way) in ESPN’s 30 For 30 documentary film series. The film is presently available on Netflix Instant and other VOD outlets.