Well, after the tragic and unnecessary death of a Georgian luger and the weird opening ceremonies capped by a bizarre malfunctioning Olympic cauldron lighting that looked like giant flaming erections, the quadriennial bacchanalia of athleticism, clean-scrubbed Whitelandia good looks, hype, and marketing known as the Winter Olympics has begun.
Today has been ski jumping and speed skating, though I have yet to see anyone wearing a Colbert Nation logo
. But while I enjoy watching the "Those Guys Are Fucking Crazy" spectacle of the Winter Olympics (somewhat less so this year now that the Fucking Craziest sport of all has endured the live and endlessly replayed demise of one of its own), for me the Winter Olympics has always been about figure skating. It has always been so, long before Tonya Harding had Nancy Kerrigan whacked in the knees (and really....admit it...didn't you have a kind of perverse satisfaction when that happened? Don't you remember that awful woman on the news shrieking about how The Beauteous Nancy was Our All American Girl!!! -- confirming the worst nightmares of every girl who was stocky, or had frizzy hair, or a big nose, or for that matter grew up in a trailer park and fought her way to the top tier, becoming the first American woman to land a triple axel -- that there was ONLY ONE standard of beauty and for some strange reason it was Irish?
Sorry about that...but figure skating always brings out one's inner bitch. I know Kerrigan just suffered the tragic loss of her father after a fight with her brother
, but she WAS a homewrecker
after all, and.....see what I mean? It just HAPPENS.
Skating fans are kind of crazy like that, because figure skating is in many ways like a high school in which EVERYONE is in the theatre club. It's really a shame, too, because if you've ever put on a pair of skates and tried to do anything beyond tootling around a rink, you know that for all the spangles and the drama, this sport is really damn hard. I put on a pair of $195 Riedell boots and $100 Pattern 99 blades at the age of 38 and took lessons from the founder and director of the Ice Theatre of New York
in exchange for database and desktop publishing work. I got as far as left-crossovers, and could not for the life of me go the other way, let alone do anything else. I finally put out my old skates for pickup day last year, with the blades rusted from the nor'easter of 2007, unwanted even by anyone on Freecycle. But while my experiment in skating is over, I do know a lutz from a toe loop from an axel; I know what the back leg position of a layback spin is supposed to be, and I know how hard all that fancy footwork is.
But let's face it: Isn't skating about the drama; about the stories, about who's sniping at whom? The bitch factor in skating reached its apex at the 2002 Olympics with the infamous judge-fixing scandal
, which resulted in a new scoring system that rates skaters on what they actually do. It took me a while to understand the new system, but now that I know what it is, I actually prefer it. Gone are the days when a Debi Thomas two-foots a triple-triple combination at the opening of a free skate and knows that her gold medal chances are gone
Figure skating aficionados, judges, and hangers-on are never satisfied with anything less than a jumping machine that also looks like a Balanchine ballerina...unless it's the men's singles event, in which case you have to lock your elbows and throw your arms around, lest you be seen as "effeminate." If you're a jumping machine like returning 2006 gold medalist Evgeni Plushenko, they're bitching because you aren't an artist
The cold war ended two decades ago, except somebody forgot to tell the people involved in figure skating. The East German judges are long gone, the Soviet bloc has been dismantled, but obsession, paranoia and conspiracy still rule. If skating didn’t exist, Robert Ludlum would have invented it.
“This sport is so political, nobody trusts anybody,” said George Rossano, an American expert on the arcane and controversial points-based scoring system.
The latest controversy centers on Yevgeny Plushenko, the defending Olympic men’s champion from Russia. He retired, then made a comeback for Vancouver, where he is favored to win a second gold medal. There is no better leaper in the world. Plushenko jumps like a teenager at a horror movie.
He is also fast and calm under pressure. And in the words of Dick Button, the 1948 and 1952 Olympic champion, “He has enough chutzpah to fill the Grand Canyon.”
Still, there are drawbacks to Plushenko’s skating: footwork and artistry. This is a guy who could use a few lessons at Arthur Murray. It was the same problem that Tom DeLay had on “Dancing With the Stars.” Both men have terrific charisma, but would be well advised in the future to avoid rhinestones, bolero jackets and the cha-cha.
Plushenko freely admits this flaw in the transitional moves — footwork, choreography and musicality — that link his soaring triple axels and quadruple toe loops. At a news conference last month, referring to himself and Brian Joubert of France, Plushenko said, “We don’t have any transitions, because we focus on our jumps.”
He also suggested that judges could prop up skaters under the new scoring system, just as in the old 6-point system, by inflating their “component” scores, the equivalent of the old artistic marks. This added to the suspicion by some that exaggerated artistic marks were given to Plushenko at the recent Russian and European championships
And if you're an artist, they bitch about that too, especially if your name is Johnny Weir
Many relish his ornate, unapologetic style, while others believe the glitz has overwhelmed the skating, making his chances for an Olympic medal as slippery as the ice itself. Underlying every move of Weir, a three-time national champion, is this question: What are the obligations of a skater who must play to the crowd and the judges?
That tension is evident in the way Weir, 25, skates and talks. He is enamored of the classic Russian style, yet sometimes he can appear more burlesque than Bolshoi. He wants to be “an athlete my country can be proud of.” At the same time, he said: “You’re putting on a show; you’re putting on a performance. I feel like that every day when I walk out of my house.”
When he walks into the rink each day, Weir wants his coach, Galina Zmievskaya, to say, “Look at you.” She has taught him to walk “like you’re the king,” head up, shoulders back, not seeing anyone, only the objective ahead — “the end of the carpet that’s been rolled out for you.”
Weir said: “My obligation has always been to bring the artistic side of my sport out. Jumps are jumps, and everybody can do those jumps. But not everybody can show something wonderful and special and unique and different.”
He is not particularly interested in making skating more mainstream or masculine, Weir said. No need to grab the average N.F.L. fan. “I wear pink,” he said. “I have no problem where my sport is as far as our fan base.”
Johnny Weir is a blog post all by himself, because you either love him or hate him. My old friend Mark Lund from my days as a skating hanger-on has problems with Weir's style of skating
, and indeed his overall style, but Weir is nothing if not fascinating. He's taken a lot of heat from the gay community for not coming out and saying he's gay, but I'm not convinced that he is. In fact, after a few episodes of Be Good Johnny Weir
, I'm beginning to think that there's gay, straight, bisexual, and Johnny Weir. I may be wrong, but I think it's entirely possible that Johnny Weir is neither gay nor straight, but something else entirely...maybe we should just call it "fabulous"? It's an ambiguity he seems to relish for the sheer joy of fucking with people's heads:
Historically the women's final has been the marquee event, but with little drama and backstory other than the fact that China, Japan and South Korea are now what the Eastern Bloc countries used to be -- finely-tuned sports machines cranking out one perfect skater after another, it's the men's event that's the most interesting -- and has the strongest lineup. It doesn't matter, though, where the Olympics hype machine is concerned, that Evgeny Plushenko may try a quad-quad, or about Stephane Lambiel's costumes, or whether Tomas Verner can manage to put together a clean freeskate, or if Japan's Nobunari Oda mounts a great comeback from a DUI suspension. Just as the Battle of the Brians and the Dueling Carmens was the big story of 1988, this year's big story is going to be the mutual sniping of the ferociously straight "warrior" Evan Lysacek, who conspicuously dates the drop-dead gorgeous ice dancer Tanith Belbin, and the aforementioned Johnny Weir. It's really a shame, too, because there's another skater on the men's team who for my money strikes the perfect balance between the athleticism of the jumps and the interpretation of music, and that's the nearly-ignored 2-time U.S. Men's Champion, Jeremy Abbott. The seraphic-faced Abbott doesn't get involved in the whole yin/yang of the social policy drama that's been enacted by Lysacek and Weir since they were twelve. All he does is pick interesting music, and then go out and do things like this:
Coverage of figure skating starts with the Men's event on Tuesday from eight to midnight Eastern Standard Time.
Labels: figure skating, sports