If you are 30 years old or older, there’s a pretty good chance that you had an instant flicker of recognition with the mention of that name. Even twenty years after the incident at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, people who have absolutely no interest in the sport can vividly recount the details of the assault on Nancy Kerrigan and the subsequent fallout. It’s hard to believe now that figure skating once captured America’s collective attention and riveted people to the 1994 Winter Olympics (me included), but the surreal circumstances surrounding the event were just too much for even the most disinterested person to ignore. If you had written what had happened as a movie, it would have been disregarded as too unbelievable. But as they say, truth is stranger than fiction and the saga of Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan is proof of that.
I always look forward to new installments in ESPN’s documentary series 30 for 30, but I was especially excited for The Price of Gold because I had been fascinated with story when it actually happened. I was a senior in high school when this was occurring and my distaste for the Olympics had not yet completely solidified. I hadn’t necessarily been paying much attention to figure skating up to this point – it wasn’t something that I would seek out, but would watch if it was on – but that all changed once Kerrigan was hit with a police baton and suspicion landed squarely in the vicinity of her rival Harding and Harding’s associates. This was all far too juicy to ignore.
As a lifelong sports fan, I’ve seen plenty of rivalries and fierce competition. Hell, as a Yankee fan I am part of one of the greatest sports rivalries of all time. I’ve seen some rowdy behavior and some questionable comments made, but this was the first time that I ever saw a premeditated attack on an athlete in order to knock them out of competition. There may be dirty plays on the field, but to seek to injure another athlete off the field was unheard of – especially in a sport that is regarded as genteel and refined as figure skating. You expect some trash talk and aggression from people playing a contact sport; a diabolical plot to take out your rival just doesn’t fit with the perception of figure skating. That’s one of the reasons I think people were so fascinated by the whole saga; it was so unexpected.
The contrast between the two women involved also made the story all the more compelling; if you had gone to central casting you couldn’t have done a better job. Though Harding and Kerrigan both came from blue collar families, their experiences were vastly different. Kerrigan came from a functional family unit that was supportive, while Harding had a hard knocks childhood that was full of abuse, both physical and emotional. Kerrigan skated for love of the sport, while Harding skated partially as an escape. Figure skating was her ticket out of the sad life she was living. Kerrigan perfectly fit the image of a figure skater, with her beauty, grace and costumes. Harding was the outsider; she was a scrappy kid with a trashy image that never quite fit in with the figure skating establishment. Kerrigan knew how to play the game; Harding was unable or willing to conform to preconceived ideas of what a figure skater should be. Based on looks alone, you would assume that Kerrigan came from the country club and Harding arose from the trailer park. The whole thing was a study in contrasts, which only served to make everything that unfolded so captivating. The attack on Kerrigan forever linked two women who were complete opposites, aside from their passion for figure skating. Add in a bunch of unseemly co-conspirators and a harebrained scheme that was easily detected and all the ingredients were there to temporarily focus the collective attention of the nation on figure skating.
The 30 for 30 documentary didn’t necessarily present much new information; having followed this story closely when it happened, I knew much of what was presented. There were a few insiders who were close to the story that could provide some additional detail, but I can’t say that I learned a lot from the doc. What made The Price of Gold so interesting was that Harding agreed to participate in it; she gave her perspective on what happened while steadfastly denying her involvement in masterminding the attack. Harding is probably her own worst enemy, as she isn’t necessarily very convincing in protesting her innocence, but she remained defiant throughout the interviews and tried her best to portray herself as the ultimate victim of what transpired. “Skating was put on the map, supposedly from me… Everybody made a life and a livelihood, um, except me.” What was most telling was that she seemed to show no remorse for what happened; it is clear that she still harbors some ill will toward Kerrigan. She thought that it was rude that Kerrigan didn’t accept her apology for her role in covering up the incident after it happened and even called Kerrigan out as a crybaby for Kerrigan’s disappointment in not winning the Gold medal. When Harding said that she didn’t give a damn about what people thought of her, you kind of have to accept that at face value. She does absolutely nothing to make herself more likable. This is not a woman that is super interested in making friends. But she seems adamant in trying to persuade people that her involvement was minimal. On that count, she fails spectacularly.
Some other quick thoughts:
- Of course this all went down in Detroit. There is no other American city that would have served as a better backdrop for all this foolishness.
- Though I had remembered almost all of the details associated with this soap opera, I had completely blocked out Oksana Baiul. I knew that Kerrigan had won the Silver medal, but the person that actually won the Gold had faded from my memory. Not salacious enough, I guess.
- Watching the footage from the 90s, I couldn’t help but be struck by the omnipresence of scrunchies. I’d forgotten that they were everywhere back in the day. A fashion trend I am not sad has passed.
- I have often looked to Jeff Gillooly as a solution to the ongoing Alex Rodriguez problem for the Yankees. If I whacked A-Rod with a bat and he was unable to play baseball ever again, I guarantee you that no jury of my peers would convict me. I’d probably be a national hero.
- He wasn’t part of the documentary, but writer Amy K. Nelson recently spoke with Gillooly (now Jeff Stone) about the incident.
- ESPNW imagined what the Tonya and Nancy drama would have looked like if Twitter had existed in 1994.
- Kerrigan declined to participate in the 30 for 30 documentary, but apparently is cooperating with an NBC doc that will air during the Sochi Olympics (makes sense, as Kerrigan has been hired by NBC as an analyst).
Though my interest in figure skating faded not long after all of this played out, it is still one of the strangest sports stories that I’ve ever watched unfold. The fact that The Price of Gold was so interesting to watch speaks well of the filmmaker, but also to the inherent allure of the story. It’s not often that you get to watch a real life soap opera play out with such a weird cast of characters. I was honestly surprised that I had so much knowledge about this still stored up in my brain. To me, it feels like this all just happened yesterday, even though we are approaching the two decade anniversary of the events. I may not have learned much from The Price of Gold, but it was still fun to revisit everything that happened and to see Harding’s recount. The Kerrigan/Harding situation was like the world’s best reality show. Even 20 years later, you just can’t look away.
The Price of Gold will re-air Saturday January 18th at 4 pm (ET)on ABC.