February 22, 2014 Leave a comment
There are three sure things in life: death, taxes, and that the media will be horrible. This documentary from Nanette Burstein, as part of ESPNs 30 For 30 series, explores the Kerrigan-Harding incident by using the 20 years of distance to desensationalize what the media had turned into a sideshow, driving the highest ratings for an Olympic program ever. I’m not sure that Tonya Harding’s participation in the documentary makes you sympathetic for her, she seems evasive and not always so well spoken, but seeing the media coverage in hindsight certainly does. What does it say about the media and its sense of entitlement that their persistent hounding with questions can make you feel bad for someone who quite possibly instigated an assault? It really makes one question the slightly absurd constitutional argument that free speech/free press demands this kind of unimpeded ability to harass.
The strength of The Price of Gold is more in its brushes with the role of class and gender within the sport of figure skating, a topic that would deserve its own documentary for an expanded exploration beyond the confines of these two, though they hold a symbolic place in that discussion. We learn that Nancy Kerrigan was of fairly modest upbringing herself, but actual money aside, the socioeconomic divide was massive, especially as it interacts with gender expectations. Kerrigan was trim and elegant where Harding was powerful. Kerrigan’s appeal earned sponsorship to pay for the full assortment of support while Harding had to scrap together on cheaper, less elegant or even homemade dresses (Michelle Kwan, a footnote of this story, would go on to generally sport Vera Wang designs). The differences were real and the media never failed to draw the differences out. There’s a glimmer that this aspect, especially the difference in sponsorships, in many ways sowed the environment for what ultimately happened on Harding’s behalf. The history of abuse by her mother, and how that may have shaped her draw to similarly tough men, may have trapped Harding anyway, but the sport that provided so much of an escape ultimately only let her in halfway.
So much of women’s sport in general is a tension between pure athleticism and the marketability of sex appeal, thus every Olympics in particular we have to fret about what it means that so many female athletes pose provocatively in order to raise their profile. This feminine ideal lives more in skating than anywhere else and certainly plays into the debate over this year’s gold medal, where some see the silver medalist, a more purely graceful skater (though the distinction is far less than Kerrigan-Harding) as having been snubbed. The sport has tried to burnish its sporting credentials by making things more mathematical and I see the critiques of this year’s result (including Ashley Wagner’s complaint lower down the rankings) in a large part an effort, often unconscious, to fight to reinstate the ideal of the ice princess. Kerrigan’s suffering is not to be overlooked (even if she and all of the skating world may have profited from it in the long run) and her effort to come back is inspiring, but in many ways the real tragedy is that because Harding was disgraced in this way, it only helped to solidify the gender and class barriers within the sport. This is why revisiting the story and delving into the real individuals and not just the media portraits of them is so vital and this documentary does a solid job at it.