Johnny Weir and pink ribbons: This is the Winter Olympics?

After the raw-boned spectacle of the Winter Olympics' other sports, figure skating is like stepping into another universe of theater and plumage.

By , Staff writer

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    At the men's short program Tuesday, Stephane Lambiel's skating and Elizabethan-era costume were equally inspiring.
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This is the year of the male in American figure skating. With America advancing only two women to Vancouver – and with neither of them likely to medal – the men have an unusually free run of the table these Winter Olympics.

The message, they say again and again, is that figure skating is a sport for real men – men who like to bench press furniture and chew thumb tacks.

Well, maybe not that. But take this from Johnny Weir: “I want people to know how hard I work … and that we’re not men doing a women’s sport.”

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Or from Jeremy Abbott: “Yes, we wear spandex, and yes, we wear sequins, but we’re athletes.”

They are undeniably right, of course. Figure skating, done by either sex, is an incomparable display of balance, poise, and power.

And yet it is a most peculiar thing.

It is a different universe

To spend the best part of a week watching humans hurtle down craning slopes at speeds exceeding the average Fiat, watching them ride a steel-bladed rocket down a chute of ice, hearing the thunder of shoulder-padded players thudding into wood and plexiglass – and then to step into the men’s figure skating competition is to enter an entirely different universe.

It was not merely the theater of competition – it is theater.

“May I have the scores please?”

The announcer actually says this before the scores are announced.

Is it possible that the judges will deny the request? Are the judges actually sitting there, results in hand, saying to themselves, “When is the stupid announcer going to ask for my results?”

No, it is theater.

A Russian skater of no great repute steps onto the ice. In the upper reaches of the media tribune, a woman unfurls a Russian flag. When Mr. Artem Borodulin begins his routine, dreamy Leif Garrett hair waving, the woman in the media section begins the rhythmic clapping so common during figure skating routines – and the entire stadium joins her.

Theater.

And what is the diligent journalist supposed to do about the costumes? Outfits? Uniforms?

Hillary Clinton has complained that men’s sartorial choices are not as closely scrutinized as those of women. She has clearly never attended the men’s figure skating program at the Winter Olympics.

Johnny Weir skated a flawless routine. Do I need to mention he was wearing a pink-ribboned corset with sparkles? Evan Lysacek had plumage. Was this relevant to his routine, or are we maligning his athleticism if we ask?

Can someone get Joan Rivers on the phone? We must know: Was the sparkly skeleton-dude skating a Halloween routine to “Night on Bald Mountain” bold or unforgivably gauche?

Couldn't you just wear a uniform?

Just for a moment, imagine if skaters acted like their closest Olympic brethren – gymnasts – and just wore uniforms. That is the ultimatum of the “we’re just athletes” line of argument.

It is also, in some ways, the direction that the new scoring system leads. Yes, there is some scope for judges to reward skaters like Weir, whose artistry is the engine of their performance. But not enough to make these skaters consistent contenders.

Tired of fur-wearing French figure-skating judges and the controversy they court, the International Olympic Committee has set a new standard for all judged sports (except snowboarding), making them base scores more on measurable athletic skills than intangible impressions.

Yet Takahiko Kozuka takes the ice in a collared shirt and jeans, skating to Hendrix, and somehow it feels weird. Weirder than the plumage.

In this odd universe, we’ve been conditioned to accept plumage. We need plumage.

Are you Hamlet? Are you lost?

After a dozen consecutive routines that look almost exactly the same – every skater putting in the same high-scoring tricks to pump up their score – Stephane Lambiel takes the ice. He looks patently ridiculous, as though some local theater company would be coming by at any moment, searching for its lost Hamlet.

Then he skates, and there is a tickle up the spine. Is it the skating or the Sir Francis Walsingham-era fur trim? Both, maybe. Maybe that silly jacket has created a mood that becomes the vessel of his athletic performance.

Maybe next time, I’ll start the clapping.

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Mark has observed a lot of figure-skating events while covering five Olympics. Follow him on his Olympic Twitter feed.

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