Thanks to Olympic skater turned NBC sports analyst Johnny Weir, I now know the difference between “twizzles” and Twizzlers®, the latter being the candy and the former a move required in figure skating competitions.
I have also come to appreciate the intense spotlight under which Weir and other gay Olympic athletes find glaringly focused upon them not just for their sports achievements but also because they are gay.
Were it not for the fact that the 2014 Winter Olympic Games1 are in Sochi, Russia, where anti-gay sentiments have been in the headlines, it would be surprising that so much attention is being paid to a subject that by now seems to many almost passé. Does anyone remember the drama that dogged Olympic gold medalist Greg Louganis? For years, the diving champion kept both his sexuality and the fact that he was HIV positive a secret from nearly everyone except the doctors who were treating him–including the physician who stitched up Louganis’ bloodied head following that terrifying head banging accident on a diving board during the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea2.
More than a quarter century later, media and the public still have an insatiable need to know about the sexual orientation of Olympic athletes. And some gay Olympians-career risks aside-have an apparent need to free themselves of the pressure to come out. Take, for example, male figure skaters. Not every male figure skater is gay. Not every male figure skater who is gay is openly so. In the case of Johnny Weir, he is a former Olympic figure skater who is both gay and open. However, as much emphasis as is placed upon this common knowledge about Weir, it should be noted that Weir is not placing nearly as much emphasis on these elements of his personal life as is almost everyone else. Rather, Weir appears to be squarely focused on the fact that he is in Sochi to commentate on a sport that he happens to know a whole lot about. If he does have an opinion on the dynamics of the geo-political landscape that is Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Weir is keeping his thoughts-and correctly so-to himself.
Weir’s beginnings with skating are admirably humble. According to accounts of his life story, his Olympic journey began when he first started to learn skating on a frozen Pennsylvania cornfield behind his family’s home. Now, after years of competitive skating, (during which he kept the skating world guessing about whether he was going to compete in the Sochi Winter Olympics) Weir is on the air with co-analyst and Olympic skating gold medalist Tara Lipinski on NBCSN3.
Some argue that the Lipinski-Weir pair is already good enough for prime time. And it is evident that Weir embraces his role as a team player behind the microphone. Even Weir’s outfits, which by his own standards are fairly tame; do not detract from his primary role in helping viewers understand the scoring of a skate. Reports are that Weir and Lipinski are long-time friends and, in fact, coordinated their on-air wardrobes. We have yet to see anything that Weir has donned that either music icons Steven Tyler or Prince might not wear–wedged-heeled shoes and hair accessories notwithstanding. And, while Weir has been featured on NBC’s Today Show4 in lighter fare stories on the Olympics, his primary role as an Olympic figure skating analyst is now firmly cemented.
Granted, NBC Sports hired Weir with its network eyes wide open. Aside from his obvious expertise, it certainly doesn’t hurt network viewership to have someone aboard who is packaged well for television. Fashion and flair on the ice may have helped to put Weir behind the microphone but he is also familiar with the Russian culture, knows the language and, in being paired with Lipinski, comes across as articulate in his sport but not so technical that he loses the audience.
Although he is a well-decorated figure skating champion both in the U.S and abroad, Weir has never won any Olympic hardware. He has never stood on an Olympic podium with his neck ready to be draped by a ribbon attached to an Olympic medal. In Sochi, Weir is on a podium of a different sort. This time, it appears that his performance is golden.
The Olympics have come a long way since the infamous days of Greg Louganis and other gay Olympic athletes who feared coming out would cost them product endorsements and other hard-won achievements that Olympic medals–and the fame that comes with just being in the Olympics–can garner. In exchange for their years of training and sacrifice, it would not seem too much for these athletes to hope for more focus on their career efforts and less on their private lives. That’s a way of life familiar to nearly all of us.