Monica Lewinsky is perhaps the only person to make it out of the 1990s more infamous than Tonya Harding.
Twenty years ago, Harding became a household name after she was implicated in the “whack heard ’round the world” on her fellow Team USA teammate, Nancy Kerrigan. To this day, there may not be a bigger scandal in modern sports history.
Now, two decades later, the scandal is the focus of ESPN’s latest documentary in the network’s “30 for 30” series.
“The Price of Gold” opens with Nancy Kerrigan shrieking through tears, “Why me? Why?” after a man (who we all now know was a friend of Harding’s ex-husband) kneecapped her after a practice run ahead of the the Jan. 6, 1994 U.S. Figure Skating Championships.
That unbelievable moment was splashed across newspapers and TV stations all over the world and was the focus of media attention for the next few months as the FBI tried to figure out who did this and why, and as Harding and Kerrigan worked towards becoming the two women to compete as Team USA at the Lillehammer Olympics six weeks later.
The documentary features interviews from a childhood friend, as well as a local Portland TV reporter who covered the scandal, several law enforcement officials and commentators, and Harding herself, now an out-of-shape 43-year-old mom. Kerrigan declined to be interviewed for the documentary, and her recent personal struggles (her brother is currently in jail for fatally assaulting their father) could be one of the reasons.
But Kerrigan’s husband/agent, a male figure skating friend, her former coach, her “sports psychologist” and a hometown Boston Globe reporter all speak on behalf of Kerrigan. They all say she never wanted all of this attention.
Harding, meanwhile, may be infamous, but clearly wants to be relevant. She does herself no favors in making the audience believe that she had nothing to do with planning out the attack, which she still claims is the case (and what her plea deal back in 1994 says, legally). But the documentary does its best to paint a nasty picture of Harding’s childhood and abusive marriage, which served as a kind of explanation for Harding’s odd behavior.
The bitter Harding/Kerrigan rivalry — even if some of it was fabricated by the media back in the early ’90s — clearly still gnaws at Harding to this day. She is defensive throughout the documentary, and what she says she thought about Kerrigan not winning the silver at the ’94 Olympics is a doozy.
It’s clear that Harding feels resentment towards Kerrigan and the figure-skating community in general. And maybe she should, because maybe she actually is innocent. But there is one instance in the documentary where she directly contradicts what a police officer says about her handwriting sample. Her childhood friend is also crystal clear on what she thinks Harding did or did not do to Kerrigan.
As Tony Kornheiser says at one point in the documentary, not even a good soap opera could make up a plot this juicy.
I was only seven years old when the whack heard around the world happened, but some of the images from the 1994 Winter Olympics are seared into my brain. So if you were over the age of seven when it all went down in 1994, you’ll love remembering the scandal all over again when “The Price of Gold” airs next Thursday, Jan. 16 at 9 p.m. EST on ESPN.