Amanda Hess at Slate reports on ESPN’s documentary The Price of Gold, which focuses on Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan and features an interesting look into the ways that appearance and social class interconnect in the world of figure skating. Hess writes:
As Nanette Burstein’s documentary makes clear, the Kerrigan-Harding affair unfolded in a commercial landscape in which economic potential hinges on appearance as much as it does athleticism. By the early ’90s, Kerrigan and Harding were toe-to-toe in American figure skating competition, but when it came to monetizing their skills, Kerrigan was skating on an elevated plain. Though both athletes emerged from working-class backgrounds, Kerrigan was blessed with patrician good looks and a sophisticated air that easily courted corporate sponsorships and Hollywood attention. “Nancy looked like she was wealthy,” is how Boston Globe reporter John Powers puts it in the documentary. Harding, counters Connie Chung, was the “girl with frizzy blonde hair from the wrong side of the tracks.” And their performance styles reinforced the divide: While Harding powered through technical routines, Kerrigan danced.
And so Kerrigan’s face soon became as famous as her feats on the ice. She began raking in endorsements early in her career, filming spots for Campbell’s soup, L’Oreal, and Reebok; in 1992, she starred in a televised Christmas special. But even when Harding became the first American woman to land a triple axel in competition, in 1991, no one wanted her to sell anything. “She was a great skater. I was a great skater. But she was treated like this big queen,” Harding says in the documentary. “She’s a princess, and I’m a pile of crap.” At one point in the film, Harding recalls wearing a bright-pink costume in competition that she had sewn herself. “It was really pretty!” she says. But “one of the judges came up to me afterwards and said … ‘If you ever wear anything like that again at a U.S. championship, you will never do another one.’” Harding shot back that until the judges gave her $5,000 to buy a designer piece, “You can get out of my face!” Meanwhile, as Sarah Marshall detailed in The Believer this month, Kerrigan had Vera Wang designing her costumes gratis.
Although the scandal involving Harding and Kerrigan happened over 20 years ago, the situation has not necessarily changed for female athletes. Hess notes:
Last year, Maria Sharapova earned almost twice as much endorsement money as Serena Williams—$23 million to $12 million—even though Williams has racked up twice as many points as Sharapova in singles competitions over the past year and has beaten Sharapova 14 consecutive times. Twelve mil is still a decent amount of scratch—and Sharapova is also an excellent player—but the fact remains that Williams has to work harder to make less money.