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When the Going Gets Weird, Olympic Skating Turns To Weird Song Choices, Weird Falls and Weird Weir Hair
February 13, 2018  | By Alex Strachan

Let’s face it. It was kinda fun watching Canada waltz to an Olympic gold medal in the team figure skating event this past weekend — once one got over the constant nattering of NBC pundit and 1998 Olympic champion Tara Lipinski (below), that is, or the shock of seeing her broadcast partner Johnny Weir (below) sporting a hairdo that looked like a to-scale rendition of the Great White Throne in Zion National Park, only shellacked pure black.

A flawed but game skating performance by ice dancers Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani helped Team USA pip Japan for the bronze, but it was the Canadians’ night to shine.

Does it matter?

It does, actually.

It matters both to NBC, which is counting on its skating coverage to shore up ratings for the entire Olympic fortnight, and to the Canadians themselves.

Tired of being labeled “the Bronze Medal Capital of the World” and looking for validation for a skating program that has risen to the top of the world’s elite in recent years, the Canadians wanted to both win a gold medal for champion men’s skater Patrick Chan, who had never won Olympic gold before, despite having won more world titles it seems than the New England Patriots have won Super Bowls.

It mattered, too, for ice dancers Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, who are looking to add 2018 PyeongChang Olympic gold to the Olympic gold medal they first won in 2010 in Vancouver, and the silver they won in 2014 in Sochi.

NBC’s coverage has been peppy and positive so far — no surprise there — with Olympic co-host Mike Tirico determined not to drop the torch passed to him by long-time Olympic Iron Man Bob Costas, the Cal Ripken Jr. of NBC sports announcers. (Costas is still smarting over NBC losing the rights to Major League Baseball back in the day, but that’s a story for a whole other season.)

Tirico is wisely playing down the whole “political thing,” because, while politics and the International Olympic Committee are never far removed, nobody sitting at home wants to be reminded that L’il Kim sits on a nuclear button just 180 miles from the Games site, or that VP Mike Pence looks distinctly annoyed every time the camera falls on him.

And politics is never far away from the skating venue.

Ever since the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City was thrown into disarray over a skating scandal worthy of a Robert Ludlum thriller, skating has been the scene of countless dark conspiracy theories and shadowy meetings behind closed doors, or in underground parking garages.

Ever since the Salt Lake Games, no Olympic skating competition has seemed quite the same without at least one kinky French judge; scowling Russians (“Olympic athletes from Russia,” if you prefer); Olympic arbitration boards that could teach Congress a thing or two about gridlock when it comes to reaching a consensus; at least clearly one startled American teenager; and enough lawyers to staff an entire  David E. Kelley courtroom drama.

These Olympic Games got an early taste of politics after NBC was prompted — “encouraged,” if you prefer, by social-media outrage — to apologize to Korea for a comment made by analyst Joshua Cooper Ramo during last Friday’s Opening Ceremony that “every Korean” would agree that Japan set a fine example for their country. (The full quote was: “Every Korean will tell you that Japan is a cultural and technical and economic example that has been so important to their own transformation.”)

That’s a tough argument to make, since Japan occupied Korea for some 35 years, including the Second World War.

Oh, well. By now the Opening Ceremony is a receding memory, anyway. It’s all about the skating.

The team event — relatively new — was itself a hotbed of politics. Several countries chose to sit out their best skaters, since the all-important individual competition starts tonight (Tuesday) and continues for the next 10 days. In the Olympic medals table, it’s the individual medals that count for all.

Tonight kicks off with the individual pairs’ short program; the gold medal will be decided in Wednesday’s free skate.

The ice dance, which clinched skating’s first gold medal for Canada, will be decided Sunday and Monday.

Virtue and Moir (below) are favored for the gold there. It was partly their decision to compete in the team event, rather than sit and rest for the main event, that may have positioned them to win, since they now know about PyeongChang’s funky ice, having experience it in competition firsthand.

Virtue is 28 and Moir is 34. It’s not unimaginable to think they may stage a comeback at Beijing in 2022, even though they’ve intimated this Olympics will be their last. Their free skate Sunday had a snap and vibrancy that cast their competition in the shade, despite some dramatic moments from the others. (This is the first Olympics to approve the use of vocals as background music. Traditional skating powers like Russia, or “Olympic athletes from Russia” if you prefer, have stuck to the classics, from Tchaikovsky to Elvis Presley. The Canadians skated to the Moulin Rouge! movie cover of The Police’s “Roxanne,” while the US team seem to be favoring, wait for it, Coldplay. It was fun to this Coldplay aficionado to see the Shibutani’s skate to Coldplay’s “Paradise” — Lipinski practically gushed over the choice of song — but I’m not sure Chris Martin or Jonny Buckland et al. would’ve appreciated that weird arrangement, or the even weirder decision to jam a couple of lyrics from “Fix You” into the middle of “Paradise”’s chorus.

The skating rocked, though.

And Weir and Lipinski have come through in the clutch, as well. These are trying times, so it’s a delight to have Weir around to say exactly what he thinks, whether or not he thinks it’s the right thing to say, or the right time to say it.

As he once famously said — famously enough to rate top billing on the aggregate website BrainyQuote — “Love myself I do. Not everything, but I love the good as well as the bad. I love my crazy lifestyle, and I love my hard discipline. I love my freedom of speech and the way my eyes get dark when I’m tired.”

One gets the sense that Ramo’s faux pas at the Opening Ceremony will be nothing compared to what Weir might say, or do, if something weird happens that gets him really worked up.

With skating, that’s always a possibility.

There’s been a lot of talk on social media about the bad ice — or, more specifically, a surprising run of falls by top-ranked skaters who’ve practiced years for this very event.

That’s one reason Virtue and Moir stood out on the weekend. They never looked in danger of falling, let alone going down in a giant sequinned heap.

The problem, though — and it is a problem — is that some skaters have been racking up sky-high scores even with all those falls. That’s what happens when you get a judged sport instead of one based on speed, strength or physical prowess. The judges are looking for things you can’t see at home, unless you’re a skating expert, follow the sport religiously or an old-fashioned obsessive with an unhealthy attention to detail.

The late Canadian skater Toller Cranston — some say one of the most talented, artistic skaters ever to have laced on a pair of blades, despite winning just one Olympic medal, and bronze at that (Innsbruck, Austria in 1976) — was as outspoken as Weir in his day.

Cranston was famously dismissive of skating judges, perhaps not the best attitude to have, when your entire sport is based on judges’ marks.

Cranston said the viewer sitting at home is by far the most qualified person to decide whether a skating performance is any good or not. It’s not rocket science, he said: If a skater falls, basically that skate wasn’t any (darn) good, okay? Simple, basic stuff.

More importantly, if, by the end of a skate, the entire arena is on its feet, screaming in appreciation, that should count for something more than a cursory nod from the judges’ table.

Needless to say, network executives purely loved Cranston, even if they may have been a little nervous at times. As Costas has passed the torch on to Tirico (left), you might say Cranston has passed the torch on to Weir.

True, the real competition has yet to begin. That comes tonight. So far, no kinky judge has thrown a curveball into the mix, despite that run of surprisingly high scores for skaters who fell, and so far government “minders” from Moscow to Pyongyang have behaved themselves, that we know.

The table has been set for 10 days of drama. It looks to be a promising contest, this time around, as entertaining as anything on Celebrity Big Brother or a rerun of Young Sheldon.

Cranston was right. You, sitting at home, are what counts. NBC knows that. That’s why they’ve loaded up on the skating — bigly so, in prime-time.

As for the undeniable fact that much of that prime-time coverage is tape-delayed, despite those annoying “Live” icons in the top corner of the screen, the skating is edited so that’s it’s paced over four hours, with a feel-good emotional bump held back until the very end.

Bring on the French! And the French judge. Prepare yourself for more Coldplay.

And more of that Weir hair.


All times ET on NBC; check your local listings.
Tonight (Tuesday, Feb. 13)
Pairs: Short program, 8 p.m.

Wednesday, Feb. 14
Pairs: Free skate, 8:30 p.m.
Thursday, Feb. 15
Men: Short program, 8 p.m.
Friday, Feb. 16
Men: Free skate, 8 p.m.

Sunday, Feb. 18
Ice Dance: Short dance, 8 p.m.
Monday, Feb. 19
Ice Dance: Free dance, 8 p.m.
Tuesday, Feb. 20
Ladies: Short program, 8 p.m.
Thursday, Feb. 22
Ladies: Free skate, 8 p.m.
Note: All events will be streamed live on NBCOlympics.com.
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