Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Tango Olympica

I'll grant that the Summer Olympics are objectively better than the Winter Olympics, if only because the summer games feature a wide variety of events that require recognizable athletic skill, while the winter games mainly test the different ways people can fall down a mountain. But I have a soft spot for the Winter Olympics, because my mom's a skating nut, and we spent plenty of winters with the games on TV and the whole family sitting around a card table, playing games or doing puzzles while Eric Heiden was winning five gold medals, the U.S. Hockey team was shocking the Russians, and countless guys and gals in sequins were making my mother cry.

What I like best about the Olympics–any Olympics–is that I go in knowing almost nothing about the competitors or even some of the events, but I quickly find reasons to watch and reasons to root. So far this year, I'm fascinated by:

1. The Curlers

Five years ago, you couldn't have convinced me that there'd be anything interesting about "shuffleboard on ice" … but then you couldn't have convinced me that I'd enjoy watching televised poker either. In both cases, the pleasure comes from strategizing along with the players. Should the curlers put up a guard? Try to get one in the house? Go for a double-knockout? Try to blank the end so they can hold onto the hammer? (I confess, it's also fun to throw curling lingo around, like, "The Third skinnied the guards and now we're laying two with Skip-rocks to go.")

Sporting nationalist that I am, I've been enjoying the success of the U.S. men's team, though I've yet to see any particular quality that makes them better than any other curling team, outside of good choices and a little good luck. (Again, like poker.) I've probably been enjoying the U.S. women's team even more, despite their shocking failures. It's not just that they're pretty–though the lithe figures and angular faces of the Johnson sisters certainly make them look all the more elegant as they glide across the ice–but more their demeanor, which is like a bunch of Midwestern office pals trying to decide where to go to lunch. They debate shot selection with a series of noncommittal "yeah"s, and when one of them blows a shot, the others pipe up with quick, cheery "that's okay"s. They're freakin' adorable.

2. Showboat-Cross

NBC's ratings haven't been super-strong for the games to date–though they're winning every night, even when they get beaten in individual timeslots–and the reason may be a lack of star athletes to promote, and a lack of "did you see that?" water-cooler moments. The network finally got one over the weekend in semi-ignominious fashion, as snowboarder Lindsey Jacobellis, leading a race by a wide margin, attempted to do a smart-ass "look at me" move on the last jump of the course, and fell flat on her wallet, allowing the second-place racer to pass her. For people, like me, who get annoyed with the spotlight-hogging of modern athletes, the moment was the kind of poetic justice we always hope to see. (Sort like when some jerko speeds through a red light right in front of you, unaware that there's a police car right behind you.) Even better, Jacobellis did the right thing and spoke to the press afterwards, and though she initially tried to pretend that she wasn't showing off, she eventually copped to her mistake for Bob Costas, who congratulated her for owning up. Sin and penitence, all in one night.

By the way, if the Olympics have to include "extreme" sports like snowboarding, I'll take the ones like snowboard-cross: a straight race with no style points. I did finally start to understand what a good half-pipe run looks like after watching "The Flying Tomato" attack the course last week–with big air and daring maneuvers throughout–but I'm still not sold on the idea that snow bums dicking around constitutes an Olympic sport.

3. Johnny Weir

Despite my mother's best efforts, I just don't pay attention to figure skating until the Olympics come around, so I'd never heard of Weir until right before he did his short program, preceded as always by one of NBC's "up close and personal" profiles. The piece was all about how "outrageous" and "outspoken" Weir is, and it featured him in full-on bitch-queen seducer mode, draped on a fainting couch and pouting at the camera while he talked about how he's not going to hide who he is, no matter who he offends. After all that, I was a little annoyed that NBC wouldn't connect the dots and define "unique" as "openly gay"–especially since he went on to skate to "Swan Lake," for crying out loud, and dressed like a swan–but then I went to a couple of Weir-related websites and found out that his "being who I am" shtick doesn't extend to actually coming out of the closet. His public statements about his sexuality have been very coy, and his fan site message board discourages "speculation about Johnny's personal life."

But c'mon.

What I like best about Weir is his enthusiastic gayness. Male figure skating has become all about the jumps–especially with the new scoring system–and while that's easier to judge than some nebulous notion of "artistic impression," it diminishes the sheer aesthetic wonder of watching a man move gracefully across a surface unsuited to grace. Weir's "Swan Lake" short program was simply beautiful, with a lot of superfluous balletic gestures and a free spirit largely missing from his stiff, technical-minded rivals. Unfortunately, Weir tightened up on the long program, and got so focused on making his jumps that he lost some continuity (and, inevitably, missed one of those jumps). Still, he's been electrifying to watch, primarily because he offers an alternative to the purely athletic, fey-but-"manly" version of men's skating. His statements to the press may not be as honest as he pretends, but his skating is nothing but true.


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