ESPN 30 for 30: The Price of Gold (2014)

Directed by Nanette Burstein

Figure skating, to me, has always been one of the marque sports in the Winter Olympics. I can remember as a kid growing up watching such greats as Michelle Kwan and Tara Lapinski. If you too are a fan of the sport, that reference tips you off to the fact that I was in fact just too young to have experienced in full the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan debacle. With that in mind I may not have the personal perspective to fully evaluate the case, but it also means I hold allegiance to neither, which is both good and bad because what a soap opera this thing was. For me, it was like watching All My Children for the first time and not knowing whether I’m supposed to love or hate Susan Lucci, or both.

Nannette Burstein (Going the Distance) lays out the story in a very engaging manner. Her sure-handed documentary structure exceeds that of most in the 30 for 30 series, which makes the film mostly fascinating, allowing the viewer the pleasure of reliving this train wreck, media-frenzied sports drama. There is no extra flash or flourish, and why should there be when the story sells itself? Beginning with segments on the upbringing and backgrounds of both famed skaters, we get a chance to understand where they come from, and how the stage was set for such a controversy.

Tonya Harding came from a blue collar family in Oregon. Poor and abusive, her childhood was a struggle of being able to overcome restrictions and obstacles. She truly was a Cinderella story to get as far as she did in her skating life, and much of that had to do with her natural talent. Kerrigan is also described as having come from a blue collar family, but a much more stable and supportive atmosphere than that of Harding. As a result, the biggest difference between the two was their personas. For Harding, she was the “ugly duckling”. Not truly ugly, but not nearly the ice princess standard that had been seen in figure skating for many years. She wore her emotions on her sleeve and had a chip on her shoulder. Setting out to be more athlete than princess, she upset much of the establishment with her untraditional routines, outfits, and attitude. Kerrigan, to her credit, was able to sell herself as the ice princess judges and sponsors wanted. She played the game while Harding marched to the beat of her own drum.

Whichever your preference, they were both great skaters with loads of talent. If I could say one thing about all of it, it would be that neither is really all that sympathetic. In some ways it reminds me of one of this year’s biggest hits, Gone Girl. A film/book of the highest drama, I was never able to sympathize with either enough to feel vested. I see both sides for Nancy and Tonya, but I can’t pick a side, mostly because neither side is the right side. So I pick Michelle Kwan and Tara Lapinski. In her interviews, Harding does nothing to convince me she wasn’t involved, mostly because of her disdain for Kerrigan to this day, and her attitude towards the whole situation. The footage from the time used also doesn’t do her any service. She comes off as more interested in the competition than any genuine concern for what was going on around her, including sympathy for Kerrigan.

Kerrigan on the other hand, who was not interviewed for the documentary presumably because she denied the request, often comes across as a bit spoiled. It was a terrible thing that happened to her, and her reaction at the Olympics, while rude, can be somewhat dismissed due to the amount of pressure and trauma that she had been going through. I felt more sorry for Harding than I did for Kerrigan. Kerrigan was the victim and as a result everyone backed her and felt sorry for her. Harding was the accused, and as the healthy one, she was the one who felt the pressure from the media. She got it from all sides and I cannot imagine what she must have gone through. She was the abused one, the one whose life led her to bad relationships, relationships with the type of people who would do this. But how much of that is her fault? Was she involved in the planning? I don’t know, it really is hard to say. But ultimately it’s a dynamite story with, for me, no one to believe and no one true victim.

*** – Good

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