Still Crazy After All These Years: ESPN Films’ The Price of Gold

Curator's Note

Nanette Burstein’s recent ESPN Films documentary on the 1994 Nancy Kerrigan-Tonya Harding saga, The Price of Gold, opens with iconic footage of Kerrigan writhing in agony after a masked man hit her knee with a police baton. “Why? Why? Why?,” Kerrigan moans as trainers frantically attend to her. Her bawls display a swell of marketable melodrama that CBS rode to record ratings in its Olympic coverage. The footage acquired even more allure days later, when it was discovered that Harding’s husband Jeff Gillooly orchestrated the plot. ESPN Films markets its documentaries by appealing to the new light they shed on sport’s past. The Price of Gold, however, reaffirms Harding’s longstanding image as Kerrigan’s unpolished foil. The production, driven by interviews with Harding, depicts her as embittered and petulant. She resentfully huffs that Kerrigan was treated as “a princess” while she was derided as “a pile of crap.” At another point, Burstein edits interview footage to catch Harding lying, a maneuver that forces us to question whether any of her comments included up to that point are credible. The only sympathy that comes across is the possibility—one that Burstein skillfully, if not exploitatively, dangles—that the disgraced Olympian may be, and perhaps always was, a little crazy.

While it shares little new information, The Price of Gold provides ESPN with a greater stake in the Olympics, which NBC owns the rights to televise. Aside from Russia’s lamentable intolerance, there are few controversial or provocative storylines surrounding the event. Though it happened 20 years ago, the Kerrigan-Harding scandal remains an alluring frame of reference through which women’s Olympic figure skating is mythologized, represented, and read. While neither ESPN nor its corporate sibling ABC will be televising figure skating this year, they take measures to own one of the sport’s most bizarre moments, and to ensure it still seems as strange as it did in ’94. Like most myths, Harding’s image derives its enduring power in large part from its stability. ESPN reinforces this myth en route to selling it back to us two decades after its genesis.


Travis thank you for your comments on this 30 for 30 documentary. What I find so interesting about this incident is how it is one of the enduring narratives that frame understanding (particularly US understanding) about the Winter Olympics. The Jamaican bobsled team and the Miracle on Ice being the other two. It was also intriguing how the documentary described this controversy as the launching point for the Ice Capades. Can any of the other scandals we discuss this week be linked to the creation of a long running industry?

Thank you, Travis, for the example and your helpful remarks. Similar to Ethan, I wonder which other scandals have shaped the meaning of a single competition in such a strong manner; one precondition for the resonance of this case might also have been that figure skating (as Bettina Fabos' insightful 'Forcing the Fairytale'-article argues) became dominated by storytelling and narrative 'characters' just around 1992. More generally it is my impression that memorizing sports events from the past has become the most dominant strategy to connect a company without official contracts to the Olympics (or similar mega events). Archival footage or the oral history of athletes is not only relatively cheap, it also takes up names and events which are present in the 'official' coverage as well; a past controversy here seems to be as good as a past gold medalist.

Thanks to Travis, Ethan, and Markus. I actually read this doc a little differently, though I understand the reading that it undermines Harding, makes her seem "crazy,"deluded or dishonest. The doc seems also, and more vividly, in its use of Harding quite visibly set apart from pretty much all other interviewees, to offer a series of contradictions and misreadings by all. The piece also critiques the several interrelated industries (figure skating, Olympics, commercial products) that sustain this story (or these stories). Harding's own rickety storytelling, her upset, her expressive face and body, may all be authentic or highly performative, deliberate or not. But the film seems less focused on indicting Harding than considering how she came to be, and also, how her story resonates in contexts from the televisual myth, the class politics of the sport/industry, and the gender anxieties Harding apparently still provokes. Those viewers feeling those resonances may also look forward to seeing Nancy Kerrigan's "version" on Sunday night 2/23, courtesy her new employer MSNBC. (See also, Sarah Marshall's nice background piece in The Believer, Jan 2014.)

Thanks for the comments. And good points, Cynthia. I suppose my reading located the doc as more of an exercise in containment--one that runs across much of ESPN's historical work, from SportsCentury to Nine for IX. Some of the WWL's productions certainly do push against master narratives and do justice to sport culture's contradictions (June 17, 1994 is an interesting example), but I have found them to be few and far between. It's fascinating; in the interview footage that leads into and out of commercial breaks the filmmaker shares plans to present a more complex view of the story. The documentary itself, though, seemed more invested in recuperating and rehashing the same story--one that certainly does have its complexities--with new interview footage. I wish it would have pushed up against that narrative more forcefully, and even explicitly. I'll definitely be interested in the Kerrigan piece you mentioned. Thanks for the Fabos recommendation, Markus. I've actually never read it. Looks like it will be a great fit for my sports media course.

Very interesting post and comments. I was struck by the idea of "containment" which Travis raises here in relation to the documentary, Containment seems particularly resonant for ESPN recently given the criticism it received for ending its partnership with Frontline to investigate concussions in the NFL. While ESPN reportedly gave in to pressure from the NFL to end its collaboration with PBS, given that the network has no dealings with the Olympics (to the point that it cannot show highlights) it seems to me that the 30 for 30 documentary can be read as part of ESPN's strategy of providing counter-programming through explicitly highlighting the contradictions and oversights of the official coverage of the Olympics across a range of its programs- something which it is unwilling to do with the various pro and college leagues it partners with. ESPN shows like Outside the Lines, PTI, and especially Olbermann seem to be heavily invested in exposing or criticizing various problematic aspects of the Olympics, the Russian government, and NBC's coverage of it all. Based on my rough impression, my guess is that the number of negative stories here far outweigh the positive ones about the Olympics. While NBC seems insistent on utilizing certain types of melodramatic coverage of the athletes and events (even to the point where its uncomfortable for everyone- such as the coverage of Bode Miller's deceased brother), the 30 for 30 doc memorializes the Harding/ Kerrigan event precisely because it represented the type of "bad" sports narrative that official Olympic coverage has completely excised, and something that ESPN cannot normally cover without offending its league partners.

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