The Price of Ratings Gold

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In the Believer’s January issue, Sarah Marshall delved deep into the story of Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding in the 1994 Olympics with an eye on femininity, celebrity, and the prevailing media narrative of the time. This week we asked her to share her thoughts on ESPN’s latest 30 for 30 documentary, The Price of Gold (airing now) which revisits the same characters and issues.

Are you ready for the Olympics?

The Sochi Games start in two weeks, and if you think you can escape them, you should probably give up that charade right now. Even if you can stay away from Twitter and Facebook and all other social media for sixteen days, even if you can avoid chatty coworkers and emails from friends, even if you can convince yourself that you just don’t care about even the smallest aspect of the Olympics—not the now-inevitable doping controversies, not the ceremonial flourishes and flubs, not the artistic pinnacles reached by the great minds behind the hours’ worth of commercials for Visa and Nike and McDonald’s and Coke—the Olympics will find you. And if you can resist everything else, they will still use their greatest weapon to bring you into the fold: narrative.

Is there any venue that produces more narrative than the Olympic games? Forget all the various writing festivals and conferences that take up the bulk of the calendar year; forget all the graduates of all the MFA programs in the country; forget even the publishing houses. If you want a story, or better yet want to find out what story is, you’ll get a far greater education by spending the night watching the Olympics than you would after a weekend in the library stacks. When it comes to narrative, the Games have it all: the poised young prodigy living her most outrageous dreams; the athlete returning for a second Olympics, determined to prove himself after tragedy, injury, or past failure; and, of course, the rivalry.

Is there anything sweeter than an Olympic rivalry? And, more to the point, is there anything more attractive to viewers? Even Michael Phelps’ unprecedented winning streak in the 2008 Games pales in comparison to his record-breaking wins in 2012: in 2008 no one could touch him, but in 2012 he was competing not just against other swimmers, but against age, history, and himself. The same holds true for national rivalries: it’s hard to imagine 1980’s “Miracle on Ice” seeming quite so miraculous if the American hockey team had scored a last-minute victory against, say, Sweden or Norway, rather than the Soviet Union. Or Mary Lou Retton’s flawless vault in the 1984 all-around, and the gold medal it won her, seeming quite so sweet if she hadn’t wrenched it from the grip of Romanian Ecaterina Szabo. Never mind that Mary Lou’s most vocal supporter during the all-around was her trainer, Béla Károlyi, who had defected from Romania after coaching Nadia Comăneci to Olympic victory in 1976, or that Mary Lou’s all-around gold might have been impossible had the Soviet Union not boycotted the 1984 Games. But even with the Romanians serving as understudies for the preferred Cold War villains, the contest between Mary Lou Retton and Ecaterina Szabo still provided viewers with perhaps the most satisfying Olympic narrative of all: athlete vs. athlete. And, even more attractively: girl vs. girl.

Ecaterina Szabo and Mary Lou Retton’s cutthroat competition in the individual all-around left little to be desired: they were the finest athletes their countries had to offer, and competed with strength, precision, and steely resolve. Coming as the explosive ending to a spectacular and unpredictable contest, it’s easy to see why, thirty years later, Mary Lou’s vault is so memorable, and such an enduring reminder of what the Olympics, at their very best, are all about. Few moments have rivaled it since. Yet one of the most iconic Olympic contests of all time—and the one countless viewers and network executives are now reexamining, on the eve of its twentieth anniversary—wasn’t a contest at all, at least not in the same vein as the 1984 gymnastics all-around. In fact, you wouldn’t be far off if you called it a perfect mirror image of the competition between Ecaterina Szabo and Mary Lou Retton, and the ratings gold it minted is an example of the very worst kind of spectacle the Games could produce (even if it pulled in a greater viewership than any Olympic event before or since). If the 1984 all-around was an example of the spectacular feats two young woman can accomplish if they push each other to excel further than they could have previously dreamed, then the 1994 Olympic figure skating competition between Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan demonstrated just how thoroughly two stunningly talented athletes can be crushed by the public’s desire for their weakness, and disregard for their strength.

Everyone knows the story, or at least some version of it. Ask someone on the street to tell you about Tonya Harding or Nancy Kerrigan, and you’ll find that either woman’s name will elicit the same response: the knee, the lead pipe, the broken skate lace, the showdown on Olympic ice. In other words, we remember it the same way we remember any scandal—through a combination of images, tabloid headlines, and jokes. Of course, there is something to be said for this form of recollection. How else, for example, could we process the miscarriage of justice that was the O.J. Simpson trial? How could we take a brutal double homicide and, twenty years later, remember it as a comedic soap opera filled with high-octane litigation and low-speed chase scenes? The American public didn’t quite manage to form a pearl around grit, but we did manage to redefine one of the most notorious homicides of the ‘90s as a nostalgic montage—the white Bronco, the bloody glove—worthy of a spot alongside snap bracelets, Zubaz and the New Kids on the Block’s “Hangin’ Tough” on any pop culture countdown. Networks and tabloids needed to make money, but our motivations as citizens were a little more complicated, or at least a little more forgivable: we needed to feel safe, or at least to feel like something horrific hadn’t happened on our watch. So we turned to jokes, simplification, and nostalgia. They were the same tools we had used, and still use, to process countless other scandals, even the ones that didn’t frighten us quote so much: to wit, the one with those two skaters not so many years ago.

What happened, exactly? Who could remember? Someone had hit someone, or someone had hired someone to hit someone, and one had been blonde and one brunette, one good and one bad, and both had cried, and both had made a lot of money, and then the cameras had gone somewhere else, and we had followed them there.

But now, twenty years later, we are perhaps ready to take a harder look not just at the scandal but at the women it involved, and to confront the harsh and nuanced narrative visible just beneath the soapy tabloid fodder we thought we knew. The Oregonian, the Portland newspaper that started printing news of Tonya Harding’s athletic prowess years before she made national news for allegedly planning an attack on Nancy Kerrigan, published a treasure trove of unreleased photos, and somewhat reluctantly admitted that she had long since become Oregon’s “most widely known athlete.” Tonya & Nancy: The Rock Opera began rehearsals for an anniversary run. Deadspin’s Amy K. Nelson caught up with Tonya’s ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, who pled guilty to a charge of racketeering for his role in the assault, but who still maintains that Tonya was in on things from the start. And now, just in time for the 2014 Games, NBC and ESPN have both made documentaries on the scandal. NBC’s documentary will appear in conjunction with the network’s Olympic coverage, its air date alone a tacit acceptance of just how high the scandal ranked in viewers’ memories.

Meanwhile, ESPN’s documentary debuted last week as part of its ongoing 30 for 30 series, further stoking the public’s interest in the scandal’s anniversary. Taken by itself, the documentary’s subtitle, The Price of Gold, is nearly as thought-provoking as the film: neither Tonya nor Nancy won the gold medal she so desired in those Games, and only Nancy got anywhere near it. In fact, if you paid attention only to the contest between those two women, the only gold you would have seen would be on Tonya’s lucky skate blades, visible to the millions watching that night when she hoisted her skate onto the judges’ table and begged to be allowed extra time to find a skate lace long enough to hold her on her jumps, after her last one had broken during warm-ups. Tonya ended the Games in eighth place, and Nancy, a favorite for gold, lost it by a tenth of a point to the sixteen-year-old Oksana Baiul, who was as waifish and effervescent as Nancy was stoically elegant.

Oksana also did Nancy one better not just in the ice, but in her biography—Nancy came from a working-class family, Oksana was an orphan—and in the traumas that had plagued her immediately before the Games: Nancy had suffered a thigh contusion after she was assaulted six weeks earlier by a man associated with Tonya Harding; Oksana had suffered a leg injury and a back injury after colliding with German skater Tanja Szewczenko during a practice session the previous day. For viewers who got bored with the old rivalry, there was yet another by the end of the night: athlete vs. athlete, girl vs. woman, Tanja vs. Tonya. Twenty years later, however, stopping someone on the street and asking them about the figure skating at the 1994 Games will be unlikely to prompt reminiscences about the competition between Nancy and Oksana, which was just as cutthroat, and just as splendid, as Mary Lou Retton and Ecaterina Szabo’s race for the all-around gold. Your interviewee is unlikely to rhapsodize about the extra triple toe loop Oksana threw into her program in the final ten seconds, a gutty, hair-raising moment that was as close as figure skating would come to Mike Eruzione’s winning goal against the Soviet Union in 1980.

Your interviewee is also unlikely to remember how flawless of a performance Nancy Kerrigan delivered—how she in fact skated better than she had in her life—let alone the performances of any of the other skaters present: the grace and dynamism of Chen Lu, who won the bronze and inspired a generation of Chinese skaters; the unchecked and unprecedented power and aggression of France’s Surya Bonaly, who finished the night just off the podium; or the athletically wobbly but generous and crowd-pleasing skating of Katarina Witt, a two-time Olympic champion who had been a rosy-cheeked girl of eighteen when she first captured the gold for East Germany in 1984, and who in 1994 returned to the ice as a woman, happy simply to compete for unified Germany. If ladies’ figure skating is, inextricably, an expression of femininity, and all that word might possibly mean, then each of these performances represented a different approach to female strength and sportsmanship. But twenty years later, your person on the street is likely to remember none of them. They will, however, remember the two moments the scandal offered to those who wished to witness a woman in pain: Nancy Kerrigan wailing as she clutched her injured knee, and Tonya Harding sobbing as she left the ice after her first free skate attempt and showed her skate to the judges. There was gold in her skate blades, and ratings gold for the network that night, and I like to think that ESPN’s title might really refer to this: not to the terrible price an athlete is willing to pay for a gold medal, but to the terrible price we paid for this spectacle, a price which we are perhaps only beginning to understand.

Twenty years after the scandal, ESPN’s The Price of Gold is notable not so much for its direction, editing, access, or insight—all of which are solid—as it is for its existence. For many viewers, this documentary will be their first opportunity to learn about the assault on Nancy Kerrigan and the ensuing media fracas in any detail, and for this alone the film is not just commendable, but necessary. When I wrote at length about the scandal for this magazine, I found that most of the sources I needed to consult had simply vanished, or had survived only through the efforts of a kind stranger with a still-functioning VCR. There is no widely available archive of tabloid articles or TV news broadcasts, and certainly no online video database of figure skating competitions, up to and including the Olympics. In the years I spent researching not just the scandal but Harding and Kerrigan’s careers, I read archived newspaper and magazine coverage and the occasional peer-reviewed article I could find through my university’s library holdings, but spent most of my time—what probably amounted to hundreds of hours—on YouTube. The article I eventually wrote was as thorough as I could make it, but it is, by necessity, as imperfect as the research tools available to me. And if I spent three years trying to understand the complexities of the scandal and the women it concerned, what conclusions could a mildly curious individual come to after the most cursory of searches?

The Price of Gold’s interviews—with Tonya, those who knew her during the scandal, and media and figure skating insiders—are thoughtful and balanced, but its use of archival footage might be even more revealing. We see excerpts from Sharp Edges, the documentary Yale film student Sandra Luckow made when Tonya, at fifteen, went to the US Figure Skating Championships for the first time in 1986. We see countless clips of Tonya and Nancy’s skating throughout their long careers (Tonya competed at the senior level for nine years, Nancy for seven, and it is one of the enduring tragedies of the scandal that each women produced an enormous and remarkable body of work which was, ultimately, eclipsed by a few minutes at its very end). We see the famous video taken immediately after Nancy’s assault, but we also see footage of her physical therapy immediately afterwards, and of her first steps onto the ice after the attack, a mere two weeks before the Games.

The latter scene is as beautiful as the former is horrific: after being smuggled out of her house at midnight to avoid the crush of reporters that followed her every move, Nancy finally got another chance to test her shaky limbs, to remember what it felt like to glide, to gain speed, and to simply be where she belonged. In the press conference she held the day after the attack, Nancy, composed but close to tears, told reporters: “I really wanted to skate tonight.” Not I really wanted to show how much I’d grown or I really wanted a chance to get to the Olympics or I really wanted to win the National title again. In the end, all she wanted to do was skate, and her tentative joy at returning to the rink after such a painful absence tells us far more about her, as a woman and as an athlete, than that far more famous footage ever did or could.

We also see footage Tonya Harding attempting to do the same thing during her public practice sessions at Clackamas Town Center, where the throng of journalists, photographers, camera crews, and spectators jammed up against the baseboards seemed to all but threaten stampede. We see Tonya landing jumps and the crowd cheering; we see Tonya falling painfully, and the cameras taking even greater notice. “Every time I jumped,” she said in the documentary, “they’d all flash, and I’d fall on my face.” But Tonya kept practicing, alone in the rink as the world crowded around her, waiting to see what would happen next. “Believe me,” said Connie Chung, who spent perhaps more time rinkside at the Clackamas Town Center than anyone else, “even the New York Times was there…standing side by side with the National Enquirer.

Throughout The Price of Gold, nearly every person interviewed—whether an acquaintance of Tonya’s or a media insider or a fellow figure skater—makes a point of stressing just how wrong Tonya was for her sport: too aggressive, too muscular, too fat, too trashy, too brash—too everything, it seems, an equation that, in the end, always adds up to not enough. But we have regarded Tonya and Nancy as polar opposites for so long it can be all too easy to forget how little separated them: a few inches of height, a few ounces of muscle, a few yards of lace, a few years of security and love. There was a time when it seemed not just possible but likely that Tonya Harding would be an Olympic medalist, and from there could have gone on to win gold. There was a time when Nancy Kerrigan could easily have fallen by the wayside in a discipline hat demanded so much from its competitors, and would be remembered, if she was remembered at all, for buckling under the pressure, letting her country down at the World Championships in 1993, and shocking the world with the unvarnished truth of just how devastating a toll her sport had taken on her. “I don’t care what other people do,” she said tonelessly as she waited for her scores after her disastrous free skate, “it’s what I do that matters to me. That wasn’t it. That’s not what I can do… It doesn’t matter. I just want to die.” Before Tonya became such a symbol of the sport’s dark side, Nancy could easily have played a similar role, and with her history of inconsistent competition and performance anxiety, we could be justified in seeing her, as we would come to see Tonya, as the girl who could never have been enough.

Imagining that Tonya and Nancy always occupied the roles we assigned to them in 1994 certainly allows us to feel less guilt about the scandal itself: the whole affair may have been destructive to both women, and to their sport, but at least it was predetermined. It was going to happen whether we watched it or not. And looking back at Tonya’s history as a skater, we could find evidence that, even if she had not become a villain, she would never have been a star—even if this evidence was as comically slim as her music choice. Yet even Tonya’s most unconventional selections seem, in retrospect, to be oddly apropos. In her free skate at the US Championships in 1991, the event at which she became the second woman in the world to land a triple axel in competition, she skated to a disjointed medley of Danny Elfman’s theme from Batman, Tone-Lōc’s “Wild Thing,” and “Send in the Clowns.” Her performance was so electric that her music hardly mattered. Three years later, though, when she was in the thick of the scandal, “Send in the Clowns” would not have been a strange choice at all, but a perfect one, seeming, as it did, to summarize all her life had become, and to ask her purported rival all the questions she could never ask in person:

Isn’t it rich?

Are we a pair?
Me here at last on the ground

You in mid-air.

Send in the clowns.

Isn’t it bliss?

Don’t you approve?

One who keeps tearing around

One who can’t move.

…Where are the clowns?

Quick! Send in the clowns.

Don’t bother.

They’re here.

As comprehensive as it is, The Price of Gold still leaves the viewer with plenty of unanswered questions about the assault itself—who wanted what, who planned what, and when, and how, and why—some of which may forever go unanswered. But getting viewers to pose these questions is a feat enough in itself. Tonya and her supporters get the chance to claim that she’s innocent, but not to make a cogent argument for her lack of involvement, which could certainly allow viewers to assume that there isn’t one. What Tonya does get to say, however, is perhaps just as powerful. “Nancy’s a princess,” she said, summarizing the pervasive attitude not just throughout the scandal, but today. “She’s a princess, and I’m a pile of crap…but that’s okay.” Then Tonya paused, perhaps wondering how much she should say, how much she had to lose even now, and kept going. “You know what?” she said. “It’s not okay. It’s not okay. How I was treated by everybody out there was not okay.”

It would be difficult for a viewer to come away from The Price of Gold without agreeing at least this much with Tonya Harding: how she was treated—how we treated her, and continue to treat her—was not okay. The scandal her name will ever be attached to was a testament to just how low the Olympics can sink while simultaneously grabbing the highest ratings possible. It was also a testament to the lasting power of narrative, and to the price we pay for the stories we believe. Gold tarnishes. Pictures fade. But stories never quite go away, even if the details remain elusive. As another Olympic seasons looms, and as we prepare ourselves for all the narratives we will find within it—the triumphs, the defeats, and, oh yes, the rivalries—we would do well to revisit and scrutinize this infamous narrative for all it can teach us. ESPN’s The Price of Gold can’t tell us the whole story, but it can show us where to start.

Sarah Marshall grew up in Oregon and recently completed an MFA in writing from Portland State University, where she now teaches. She is at work on a book about women’s roles in media spectacle, from which this piece is excerpted.

Illustration by Tony Millionaire.