Well, what a weekend it’s been for rivalries – one of my favorite topics and the subject of my novel “Water Music” released last week.
Peyton (Manning’s) Place proving too much for The (Tom) Brady Bunch. Young Guns Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson squaring off. Former No. 1 Ana Ivanovic taking it to current No. 1 Serena Williams at the sweltering Australian Open, where the 100-plus temps have turned out to be a formidable opponent. (Last year, the players slipped and slid their way out of Wimbledon. Now they’re going under Down Under. What’s up with that?)
But here our thoughts turn from the court and the gridiron to the rink and another era to discuss “The Price of Gold,” Nanette Burstein’s fascinating new ESPN documentary about Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan, which aired on ABC Jan. 18. If you were of a certain ago 20 years ago almost to this day, they need no introduction.
People in general and the media in particular enjoy filing others away like so many documents. Nancy was the classic princess-y figure skater in the Vera Wang dresses. Tonya was the girl from the wrong side of the tracks in the shiny costumes and frizzed-out hair that no Vegas showgirl would be caught dead in. Yet as Oscar Wilde said, “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.” Nancy would prove to be a somewhat graceless, irritating gold medal loser, while Tonya was a pathetic villain.
But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. Back in 1994, Nancy and Tonya were rivals to succeed the more talented and pleasing Kristi Yamaguchi as America’s ice queen at the Winter Games in Lillehammer, Norway. The more athletic Tonya was a World Championship silver medalist and the first American woman to land a triple axel in competition. But that wasn’t enough for her. Prior to the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Detroit that served as a run-up to the Olympics, her then-husband Jeff Gillooly conspired with Shawn Eckardt and Shane Stant to wack Nancy in the knee and thus remove Tonya’s chief competition. (What Tonya knew and when she knew it remain unclear to this day. She would later plead guilty to hindering the prosecution of the attackers.)
The incident made their subsequent Olympic showdown – a bruised Nancy didn’t participate in the U.S. Championships, which Tonya won, but recovered in time for Lillehammer – a Super Bowl-size event. At the Games, there was more drama as something went wrong with one of Tonya’s skates and she finished out of the money. Nancy, to her credit, retained her poise and skated well enough to win – but not fluidly enough to beat the rising Oksana Baiul, who would go on to her own skating heartbreak.
While Nancy’s silver medal-winning performance clearly took a lot of guts, it was tarnished by what some saw as a sour-grapes reaction to Oksana’s gold-medal triumph. Her pronouncement of the obligatory post-victory tour of Disney World as “corny” sealed the impression for some that Nancy wasn’t really classy but merely looked the part in a profession in which appearances are more than half the battle. According to the documentary, Nancy, who is now married with children, has made millions off the figure-skating boom that resulted from the attack on her.
As for Tonya, she was banned from figure skating, made a tabloid-style living as a boxer, among other things, remarried and had a son. In the documentary, her features have the heaviness of a woman weighed down by the choices she made. Her piercing aquamarine eyes betray nothing. Like O.J. Simpson and President Richard Nixon, Tonya has long since constructed an alternative reality and is sticking to it. (Nancy declined to appear in this documentary as she is committed to both commentary and another documentary for NBC, which will broadcast the upcoming Sochi Games.)
As a Harding friend says in Burstein’s can’t-take-your-eyes-off-this-train-wreck film, Tonya has been her own worst enemy – the footage of her being hit in the face as a boxer is particularly painful to watch – one who cannot accept responsibility for her actions. But I think the problem is deeper than that. I think Tonya, like Simpson and Nixon, suffered from an insecure ego that could brook no loss or rejection. It wasn’t enough to be a good, athletic skater. She had to eliminate the woman who represented everything she would never be. (Tonya still talks about Nancy with bitterness.)
Had Tonya just concentrated on her own skating, instead of slights real or imagined, she might’ve beaten Nancy fair and square. Who knows? We’re all meant for different things in this world. Not even the best succeed at everything. But it’s still better to fail honestly as yourself than to succeed by cheating someone else.
As it was, with so much on the line they were both too tight and wound up losing to a slip of a girl who figured she had nothing to lose and so went for it.
Ain’t that a kick in the triple toe loop.