How Gay Figure Skating Icon Johnny Weir Has Owned the Sochi Olympics

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How Gay Figure Skating Icon Johnny Weir Has Owned the Sochi Olympics
Jeffrey Swinger/USA Today

Every four years, the world falls in love with a figure skater. These mite-sized dynamos, women in the shortest of skirts and dashing gentlemen with just a flash of flare, dominate the airwaves for two solid weeks, disappearing when they are done to the margins, regional events and ice shows the world over.

This year, though, no single skater has managed to separate themselves from the pack. While we flirted with Russian teen Julia Lipnitskaia, we weren't quite in love. She was, perhaps, too fierce, a 15-year-old automaton born to stretch her long limbs for Mother Russia. Besides, South Korea's Kim Yuna is lurking, waiting to steal our affections and Gracie Gold has the name and nationality to break hearts and take names.

That's left room for a blast from the past to wow us in a brand new context.

We already knew Johnny Weir—his catty fight with Evan Lysacek in Vancouver that peaked with Weir proclaiming Lysacek a "slore" and his red glove he named "Camille" have the ring of the familiar. But, as a member of the NBCSN broadcast crew calling the Games, we've rediscovered him. And he's fabulous.

Weir's outfits have become legend, each Chanel vest and fur coat setting the internet ablaze. Gawker has a "Weir Watch," a daily update of his sartorial splendor. They aren't alone. 

"The glory of Weir is that too far isn’t far enough," Wesley Morris wrote at Grantland.

“I’m here, I’m queer, I look fabulous in vintage Chanel, get used to it," Hollywood Life's Shauna Murphy writes, imagining Weir's inner monologue.

"Has there ever been a more fabulous NBC commentator?," Michelle Collins asks at Vanity Fair. "His outfits are to die for and his skin is made of the whispered secrets of ghosts. This is the best Johnny decision NBC has made since Carson." 

Lots of praise, none of it faint. But if Weir were simply a pretty, but ultimately empty, suit, this would be a very short story. Amazing outfits alone make Weir a meme or an Instagram superstar. Instead, he's nothing short of a revelation.

Normally a buttoned down outfit, with the uber-serious and sometimes sanctimonious Bob Costas leading the way, NBC has let Weir be Weir.

"NBC has been asking me since Vancouver to be a part of their team, and those conversations have been very open," Weir told Philadelphia Magazine. "They’ve understood that I’m clever, I’m very flamboyant, I have a crazy dress sense."

After finding his feet during the first day's broadcast, Weir has quickly become a fantastic broadcaster. 

Need an example?

Here he is on the American's chances in the pairs skating competition. On an NBC program that makes every American competitor seem like they have a chance at the gold, Weir is brutally honest—but without being off-putting or plain mean. He pulls off some difficult and forthright criticism with a light touch (via USA Today):

Pairs is not the strongest discipline for the United States. We have a kind of problem with people switching out partners whenever they’re unhappy. The European teams that usually are stronger stay together for life. They’re like penguins.

Beneath the surface, Weir's story is even more important for these Sochi Games. He became a lightning rod before the Olympics even started, a placeholder for misspent rage. Protestors, angry at a Russian law targeting homosexuals, looked for an ally in Weir

“Because of who I am I’m at the forefront of it,” he told Steve Politi of The Star-Ledger. “Not only am I gay, I’m an Olympian and a Russophile. It’s difficult, because I don’t want to offend anyone. That’s been hard.

“There is very little gray on this.” Weir continued. “It’s very black and white to a lot of people. If I support the Olympics I’m anti gay people. If I take the other side, a lot of people will see me choosing the LGBT community over the Olympics.”

The language in the Russian law was stark. Worse still were the comments from political leaders.

"Homosexuality is a sexual perversion which is unnatural and contradicts human nature,” said Tatiana Yakovleva, a member of the ruling United Russia party, per The Washington Post's Kathy Lally.

Bernat Armangue/Associated Press
Mr. Putin enjoying the figure skating.

Against all odds, Russian President Vladimir Putin was even more insulting when telling Olympic volunteers that homosexual visitors and athletes had nothing to fear in his country.

“One can feel calm and at ease,” Putin said, per Lally. “Just leave kids alone, please.”

Russian journalist Vladimir Pozner described a culture of fear to NBC's Costas in a riveting interview:

Gay Russians have a very tough time. I've known some who have been on the brink of suicide. Others who want to leave the country. This is a homophobic country. I would guess that 85% of the population is really, really anti-gay. I mean, it can be physical. They are in a very difficult situation. And the law that was passed, although it is a law to protect minors from gay propaganda, in fact, plays into the whole homophobic mentality.

Despite it all, even in the face of threats against his person and the black clouds that seemed to hang over these Games, Weir remained firm in his decision to go to Sochi. 

"There is this preconceived notion by many of these activist groups who think that the Olympics are a place to make change and it is a place to have your story heard and it is a place to fight for the LGBT community of Russia," Weir told Reuters. "...I see the Olympics for what they are — it is young people performing for their country and for glory. That is how I see the Olympics, I do not see them as a political protest."

He's been adamant in his refusal to politicize the Games. But his mere presence is a loud and proud rebuke to the Putins of the world.

Maybe it was inevitable, after all the controversy, that a gay star would emerge? The universe finds balance. In Sochi, that balance is Johnny Weir.

And, if NBC is smart, this is just the beginning. The broadcast team of Weir, his new bestie, Olympic gold medalist Tara Lipinski and the steady veteran presence of Terry Gannon, who cover figure skating in real time, have blown the "A-Team" led by Scott Hamilton out of the water.

Hamilton is a hoary institution at the Winter Olympics. He won gold in Los Angeles 30 years ago, with a routine light on jumps and heavy on laser sound effects. He's the past.

Weir, on the cutting edge, offers a more penetrating and honest look inside the minds and routines of the modern skater.

He's the future—and it's a future that looks fantastic in faux fur.

 

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