“Good girl!” and “Oh how nice, how terrific!” exult the announcers watching Tonya Harding land a triple axel in competition at the 1991 US Figure Skating Championships in Minneapolis, “She’s written a little history, and she still has three minutes to go in this routine!” It’s the first time an American woman has done so, and as she continues, her gaudy light blue costume fluttering with each jump and turn, the thrill is still palpable. As brief as that moment of the first triple axel may be, it’s an achievement — athletic, difficult, powerful — that changes Tonya Harding’s life, makes her a formidable champion when she wins the Nationals that day and also defines her.
That definition is enduringly complicated, you come to see in The Price of Gold, ESPN’s newest 30 for 30 documentary, premiering 16 January. Part of this complexity is visible even in the three minutes that follow the triple axel, where you can see the effort in Harding’s more balletic movements, her strenuously curving arms and ever-too-short extending legs. Harding, the film goes on to remind you, was always more of a “tomboy,” more remarkably “butch,” as Sarah Marshall puts it, than her competitors. Harding’s physical energy and force propelled her to stardom, but also, in the rigidly policed world of women’s figure skating, marked her.
Harding’s difference from the other girls is highlighted in that triple axel, whose very transience seems its point. Harding wins the Nationals that day — with a 6.0 for technical merit, the first ever for a female skater — and goes on to complete five more triple axels that year. But if this jump becomes her signature, however briefly, it also becomes her burden. For over the course of her career, her inability to land it or its omission from her performance garners ongoing attention.
The triple axel doesn’t actually garner much attention in Nanette Burstein’s fascinating documentary, which is more focused on the story of Harding and Nancy Kerrigan, her rival during the early 1990s and, of course, the skater who was attacked by a man with a police baton on 6 January 1994 at Detroit’s Cobo Arena. But Harding’s historic achievement has everything to do with that story, in the sense that it describes her determination, her gifts, and her obstacles, the story of her life and career.
Harding offers some of that story in the film, sitting for an extended interview in her kitchen. Other parts of it emerge in archival footage, TV interviews she or Nancy gave when they were competing, as well as interviews with other skaters, coaches, and reporters, Harding’s childhood friend Sandra Luckow and Kerrigan’s husband and manager, Jerry Solomon (Kerrigan declined to be interviewed for the film: “She really didn’t want to talk about it,” offers her coach Mary Scotvold). Each has an idea of what might have happened and whether Harding planned the attack on Kerrigan or the exceedingly creepy Jeff Gillooly did it, then implicated her afterwards. That Harding pled guilty to hindering the investigation hardly answers this lingering question, to its credit, and the film doesn’t pretend to answer it simply. Rather, it looks at its complex cultural and political framing, then and still.
Even apart from the specifics of Harding’s “white trash” history (an abusive and alcoholic mother, an abusive husband) or Kerrigan’s apparently regal ascent from her own working class background, the complexity here is compounded by women’s figure skating, the sport, the culture, and the hypocrisies. It’s renowned for the impossible demands it makes of its athletes who must also be self-inventing artists, crafting images to conform to traditional expectations while also suggesting little bits of innovation. The rigid gender formations of this particular sport are well known (and often mocked), its background briefly rendered here, as Sonja Henie leads to Peggy Fleming leads to Dorothy Hamill, each celebrated in movies or commercials as a model of femininity, graceful, elegant, selling shampoo or makeup or breakfast cereal.
It’s not a little ironic that this model becomes even more entrenched and the rewards for playing it increase following the Harding-Kerrigan story, which drew attention to women’s figure skating in numbers never imagined before. The movie tracks the scandal and the case, the preposterous and wholly predictable decisions to include both skaters on the US Olympic team in 1994. The scene at Lillehammer is recalled here in all its lunacy, Kerrigan practicing in secret and Harding before crowds of journalists hoping to catch her falling or upset, prodding her with questions.
As Connie Chung points out, Harding “didn’t know how to play the ice skating princess game,” and for that, she was punished, repeatedly. “I may be a little rough around the edges sometimes,” a young and vulnerable-seeming Harding says en route to the ’94 Olympics, “but overall, I think I’m a good person and I think there’s a lot of people out there that do like me.” The film makes this much clear, that women’s skating and CBS (who broadcast the Olympics in 1994) promoted the contest between the two girls, embodying two classes, two communities, two possible aspirations. Harding’s fans extol her grit and her athletic brilliance, while Kerrigan’s note her skill but also her beauty, her perfect incarnation of the figure skating — and more broadly, feminine” — ideal.
That ideal continues to trouble the experience of girls and women, not to mention the men who desire or fear it. Shrewdly and consistently, The Price of Gold underscores this trouble, reveals it in interviewees’ comments, whether they seem aware of that use or not. Harding comes closest to appearing sincere, if only because her interview performance is erratic. As much as she offers up a controlled image, she also offers glimpses into another aspect of that control. “She’s a princess and I’m a pile of crap,” she explains of the opposition she and Kerrigan formed. At the ’94 Olympics, she recalls, “I stayed at the dorms, I had to have security with me 24-7 and she got to do whatever she wanted, but that’s okay.” Here her hands go up, awkwardly, reminding you of the struggle of her skating performances. “You know what, it’s not okay. How I was treated by everybody out there was not okay.” As she recomposes herself, this moment is fleeting, again. You see that your understanding can only be illusory.