30 for 30: The Price of Gold
The lunch line at James Monroe Middle School was long, often forming two lines between a medal divider so as to face each other while discussing pop culture, teachers and that skank who attempted to look like the girls from Clueless. The lunch line was a place where the nice girls and “trailer park” collided. Kristin had long crunchy yellow hair and a disposition towards older Mexican men (she was eleven). One day in the lunch line she pointed to her shirt, pants and the choker around her neck, “I stole this from Meier & Frank, I stole this from Meier & Frank, I stole this from Meier & Frank.”
Then there was Holly, a heavy set black girl whose outlandish form of communication makes me admire her to this day. She often wore a shirt that read “Just Did It,” you couldn’t wear clothing with drug paraphernalia, but apparently references to sexual intercourse were OK. One day in line Holly told my friend, “Kellie you’re like a door knob, everybody gets a turn!” Which made no sense, none of us were having sex at this point, but perhaps Holly was?
Corn nuts, fruit rollups, and monster chocolate cookies were a staple as students rarely purchased a “real” lunch. In 1994 the first ladies agenda had nothing to do with nutrition in schools, it was an era when cops would come to our middle school and literally teach us, step by step, how to make meth with the ingredients spread out on a table near the principal’s office.
A pop culture moment of particular note in the lunch line was the Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan scandal, with Nancy’s “why, why, why,” repeated on a loop on every news station. By this time O.J. had already happened, the line between real news and sensationalism had been crossed. Nancy and Tonya had become more of an obsession than a topic— running through the lunchroom yelling, “bang, bang,” then dramatically falling to the floor screaming “why, why, why,” was something I did with my friends on a regular basis.
It was more farce than tragedy for young teenage girls growing up in Oregon, a state known for sexually charged senator Bob Packwood and now as it turned out a poor white trash ice skater whose only legacy would be knocking down the swan princess of American figure skating. In the ESPN documentary 30 for 30: The Price of Gold Harding gets her chance to set the record straight, at least according to her records. Harding’s story was first presented to the public in a 60 Minutes piece which detailed her troubling childhood, mainly focusing on her abusive mother LaVona Harding. A made for TV movie would present two stories, the events according to Harding and those according to Jeff Gillooly, premiered on NBC. It could be assumed Harding got her turn a long time ago and Kerrigan would continue to remain mum to this day.
As filmmaker Nanette Burstein (The Kid Stay’s in the Picture) points out when introducing the film, Tonya’s story had more layers—the childhood, the husband, the crime—you can’t make this shit up. Watching it all play out again is a riveting experience, and as Kid proved Burstein knows what to do with mountains of footage. The pictures tell a riveting story and the commentators are old friends—her subjects were at ease, as if Burstein were a family member.
As I watched the scandal unfold for a second time, texting those same girls I stood in the lunch line with twenty years ago, it was like magic, time machine indeed:
“Is this OK for my kid to watch?”
“It’s fine. The only thing indecent are the scrunches.”
“My coworker said that Jeff Gillooly’s team was as competent as Joaquin and Casey Affleck in To Die For. P.S. Bob Costas looks like he has the rage virus now.”
Stock footage from Harding’s early days, thanks to childhood friend and filmmaker Sandra Luckow add insight into Harding’s troubled childhood. We see Harding in all of her duckling glory—frizzed out hair, blue and pink eye make-up, and home-made skating costumes that would put Jem to shame. In many ways her story could have been perfect for the trappings of a Campbell soup commercial, overcoming adversity and an abusive mother to become a skating star. Harding could have done it on talent alone. She won gold and beat out Kristy Yamaguchi and Kerrigan in the 1991 world championships. In many ways she was the better skater, athletically astute and the first American woman to complete a triple axel in competition, but Harding was not Revlon material and not interested in playing the game, unless of course it was rigged.
Something happened along the way, a decision was made, and dimwitted thugs were called upon. The idea that Harding’s husband at the time, Jeff Gillooly, went out of his way to hire inept goons to injure Kerrigan unbeknownst to his wife is ridiculous, yet a claim Harding stands by to this day. Vengeance never leaves her lips as she describes Kerrigan’s snubs at the 1994 Olympics, six weeks after her attack. “I thought we were friends … and for her to treat me like that, like she was above me, I mean that’s rude.” Harding does not mince words and either do others interviewed for the doc. After twenty years of shade, no one has the time or patience for nuance. Luckow, the childhood friend who followed Harding around with a video camera when the girls were teenagers and speaks compassionately of her throughout the film, leaves us with a chilling assertion:
I have avoided the question for twenty years (long pause) but of course she was involved. Tonya is her own worst enemy and her tragic flaw is the inability to take responsibly and culpability for her actions. Tonya learned to re-invent and create her own reality, maybe that’s a survival tactic, but it’s really an unexamined life.
With Harding standing by her claim that she knew nothing until after the fact, only so much can be illuminated in this doc. Harding’s delusion is so deep there is no concept of moving on, everything about her is clinched, ready to take a verbal punch. “[Kerrigan] is the crybaby who didn’t win the gold. I’m sorry I have never said this before but just shut up! Nobody wants to hear your whining, you got a silver medal.”
Harding had a childhood with unimaginable pain no doubt, but when personal responsibility and actions are not accounted for, it’s difficult to feel sorry for her and the idea that she is innocent is farfetched. There is something still child-like about her, a bully mentality ready to growl at anyone who doubts her. The staged answers of 1994 are no longer and Tonya is pissed! In her last statement to the camera Harding addresses her new family (Tonya married for the third time in 2011 and shortly thereafter gave birth to a son). “I love me, my husband loves me and my son loves me and that’s the most important.” This is all that should matter, but something tells me Tonya may need more convincing.
A “rival” documentary if you will, featuring Nancy Kerrigan (who needed a lot of convincing, doesn’t hurt when NBC makes you a correspondent) will air with Mary Carillo during the Olympics. 30 for 30 is now streaming on Netflix and if I were a betting woman Tonya gets the gold for this one! A swan can’t outrun a pit bull.