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When Barack Obama was running for president in 2008, he joked about needing “to do a Tonya Harding” and have another candidate’s kneecap whacked with a club.

Jim Rome’s syndicated radio show regularly plays a sound clip of Nancy Kerrigan wailing, “Why, why, why?” after her knee was attacked when she came off the ice after a practice session in Detroit, where she was to compete against Harding in figure skating’s national championships in 1994.

Before Harding and Kerrigan became national punch lines, they were champions and rivals at the very top of their sport. Twenty years later, on the eve of the Sochi Olympics, filmmaker Nanette Burstein revisits their saga in a documentary called “The Price of Gold,” which debuts at 9 p.m. Thursday on ESPN.

The story of the skaters is part Greek tragedy, part tabloid mega-story. Harding was the blue-collar, rough-around-the-edges girl who grew up in Oregon in a family that barely stayed above the poverty line. Her mom, who Tonya says was an alcoholic, was both verbally and physically abusive to her daughter. Her dad was often in-between jobs. From a very early age, Tonya showed a remarkable talent for ice skating. The rink, she says, became her refuge.

Kerrigan grew up in Massachusetts. Like Harding, she was a tomboy when very young, but she later blossomed into a feminine figure who developed considerable grace on the ice. Her family was blue collar, but much more stable than Harding’s.

On Jan. 6, 1994, in Detroit, an unknown assailant attacked Kerrigan’s right knee with a metal baton, knocking her out of the nationals and severely compromising her chance to win a gold medal just weeks later at the Winter Games in Lillehammer, Norway. It later turned out, of course, that Harding’s husband at the time, Jeff Gillooly, had orchestrated the attack with a few of his associates.

Harding won the nationals in Detroit, securing one of two spots on the U.S. Olympic team. A young Michelle Kwan was next in line, based on the nationals, but the U.S. Figure Skating Association made an exception for Kerrigan, ruling that the Olympic spot belonged to her if she could rehabilitate her knee in time to compete. Kwan stepped aside.

In the meantime, the perpetrators in the attack on Kerrigan – an operation so clumsy that it made the Watergate break-in look like “The Brink’s Job” by comparison – were found out by the FBI and publicly linked to Gillooly. Prior to the Games, U.S. Figure Skating officials tried to remove Harding from the team, but she threatened to sue and was allowed to continue.

CBS, which held the Winter Games broadcast rights that year, was not unhappy that Harding would still skate in Lillehammer. Connie Chung, who worked at the ‘94 Games for CBS, is one of the figures interviewed in the film. She points out what a ratings bonanza the controversy was for the network. When Kerrigan and Harding first appeared together on the practice ice at Lillehammer, there were enough media cameras in the arena to cover a world war or a Tim Tebow news conference.

A definition of Greek tragedy is a tale that depicts the downfall of a noble hero or heroine, usually through a combination of hubris, fate and the will of the gods. Harding’s downfall in skating seems to fit the bill and a lot of the film is focused primarily on her side of the story. Harding, who now lives in central Oregon with her third husband and their son, made herself available for hours of interviews with the filmmaker. Kerrigan declined to participate.

It is impossible to watch “The Price of Gold” and not feel sympathy for Harding, whose quest to become the best skater in the world was so obviously tied to her desperate need for self-esteem. Her mother, after a competition, would tell Tonya she had failed, that she was fat, and many other hurtful things. When Harding talks about the 1991 nationals in Minneapolis, where she finished second after becoming the first American woman to land a triple axel in competition, tears come to her eyes as she recounts her long ago moment of triumph.

The central question that remains unresolved is, what did Harding know and when did she know it? Shortly before the ‘94 Games was when it came to light that Gillooly’s henchmen – Shawn Eckhardt, Shane Stant and Derrick Smith – had perpetrated the attack on Kerrigan (Stant was the one who actually struck Kerrigan’s knee). Harding admits to learning of the attack after arriving back in Oregon from Detroit. She hid what she knew from authorities until after the Lillehammer Games, when she finally agreed to plead guilty to hindering the prosecution.

In Lillehammer, Kerrigan completed a miraculous comeback from her injury, winning the silver medal. Oksana Baiul captured the gold by the slimmest of margins. Harding seemed to fall apart and finished well out of medal contention.

After the Games, Harding paid a steep price for her guilty plea when the U.S. Figure Skating Association banned her from the sport for life. Having nothing to fall back on, and her marriage to Gillooly over, Harding took up boxing to eke out a living for a couple of years.

She says she is happily married now and has a stable life raising her son. She maintains that she had nothing to do with the planning or commission of the crime against Kerrigan. A longtime friend of Harding’s says in the film that it pains her to say it, but she thinks Tonya had to be involved. Anyone who watches “The Price of Gold” can make up his or her own mind.

email: gconnors@buffnews.com