The Price of Gold Doc of the Week

The Price of Gold

Ice skating made world headlines back in January 1994 following an assault on leading contender Nancy Kerrigan at the US National Championships. But this was no random act of violence as the subsequent police investigation soon discovered. It was the culmination of a bitter rivalry between Kerrigan and another skater, Tonya Harding, a rivalry that still reverberates to this day. BT Sport 2, Thur, Aug 16th 07.00

It is one of the most bizarre episodes in the history of ice skating – or any other sport for that matter. A gothic tale of jealousy and revenge, it was more worthy of a gangland feud than a keen sporting rivalry as events played out in the darkened corridor of a skating rink in downtown Detroit. The whole world was stunned. They even made a movie about it.

Kerrigan and Harding were two of America’s leading figure skaters in the early 1990s. A statuesque brunette, Kerrigan looked every inch the all-American girl. Harding, meanwhile, was a feisty blonde with plenty of attitude. Gauche, tomboyish and street-hardened, she seemed a little too rough around the edges for such a seemingly genteel pursuit. The media labelled their rivalry ‘Snow White v White Trash’.

Kerrigan had won bronze at the 1992 Winter Olympics and was the reigning US national champion. Harding, meanwhile, had been national champion back in 1991, but her career had faltered somewhat and she was struggling to maintain her standing at the highest level. The 1994 US National Championships were to serve as qualifiers for the Winter Olympics in Norway the following month and Harding was in danger of missing out.


What happened next is almost stranger than fiction – Kerrigan is smashed over the knee with a police baton as she returns from a practice session. The media are on hand to catch the aftermath as she cries “Why, why, why?” and suddenly ice skating is headline news all over the world. The police investigation revealed that Harding’s ex-husband Jeff Gillooly had planned the attack in cahoots with a couple of his misfit friends to help his ex-wife by eliminating her main rival from the competition. The big question was – how much did Harding herself know about it? It is a controversy that has endured to this day.

Both headed to the Olympics in Lillehammer six weeks later, with Harding still under a cloud. The atmosphere was frosty to say the least. Kerrigan won silver while Harding struggled to find her form and finished well down the field. She later pleaded guilty to knowledge after the fact and with obstructing the police investigation. She avoided a jail term but, at the age of just 24, her skating career was over.

30 for 30

Part of ESPN’s celebrated 30 for 30 series, The Price of Gold takes a look back at the events of early 1994 and talks extensively to some of the people involved, including Harding herself who remains ambivalent about what happened and is less than charitable towards her former rival. There is plenty of archive footage interspersed between the interviews as it skilfully builds up to the Olympic final where Kerrigan is just pipped to the gold by Ukrainian Oksana Baiul.

Kerrigan, for her part, refused to be interviewed for the piece, but we do hear from her husband who was also her manager at the time. A little strange perhaps, but it is important to remember that Kerrigan was the victim of an unprovoked assault and is understandably keen to leave it in the past.

That just leaves more time for Harding who doesn’t come out of this well despite her desperate attempts to vindicate herself throughout. She does herself no favours by bad-mouthing Kerrigan for refusing to speak to her in the weeks following the assault and even refers to her as a “cry baby” at one point.

It was sordid then, and it’s sordid still nearly a quarter of a century on. For anyone who remembers the strange events of that time or has seen I Tonya, the movie based on Harding’s life, this is a must-watch.

Images: Getty

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