Among the Baubles, The Genuine Article

By Sally Jenkins
Wednesday, February 15, 2006

TURIN, Italy Johnny Weir stood out among all the clumsy bullfighters, pirates and princes, and not just because of the Swan-Boy costume, which, let me tell you, was quite the rig. "It weighs more than I do," he said. "It's the rhinestones." You never know what to expect out of Weir's mouth, but you can always expect it to be frank. After his performance in the Olympic men's figure skating short program, it's frankly not out of the question to expect a medal from him, either.

Weir is here. He's arrived. The three-time U.S. champion has entertained us for some time with his reflexive wit, but in his Olympic debut Weir finally showed he's a skater of international substance, too, ready to become the premier American male in this sport. Weir's swan routine, for which he received the second-highest marks of the evening, a personal best 80 points, was muscular, cleanly skated and expressive, and the outfit didn't hurt a bit. It was complete with plunging white satin streaks representing feathers, and a single red glove on his hand, for the beak, which he refers to as "Camille."

"I'm taking Camille off," Weir announced in the hallway outside of the Palavela ice rink.

Maybe there is a more appealing American athlete at the Winter Games than Weir, but it's doubtful. This is a 21-year-old who mopped his own floor in the athletes' village because he thought it was dirty. He looks like a sprite, a handsome elf. But he talks like he's in the grip of truth serum.

For instance, he prepared for his Olympic debut by eating a couple of oranges and sleeping for most of the day. "Then I got up and did my hair, and put on my fake face," he said.

It was great that the judges liked his enchantment of a program, he said, but he didn't really think he skated so well. He felt "lethargic," and in the footwork, "I was tripping all over myself."

For his long program, Weir hasn't decided whether to attempt a quadruple jump. It depends entirely on his mood, how he feels when he gets out of bed that day. "I could very likely wake up and feel horrible, like Nick Nolte's mug shot," he said.

As far as the gold medal, that's over. The favorite, Russia's Evgeni Plushenko, will win the medal unless, as Weir points out, "he falls three times. And then maybe somebody could squeeze by by a point or so."

This is all typical Weir talk, and personally, I could listen to it forever. Usually, athletes can be divided into two types of talkers, those who fall back on cliches or canned sentences, and those who say provocative things for the attention. Weir is neither. He's just a kid who hasn't yet learned any artifice.

For instance, Weir just doesn't have it in him to pretend that Plushenko is anything but utterly great, and virtually impossible to beat here. Weir probably hasn't risen to the level of challenging him yet. It will be difficult for any skater to wrest gold from Plushenko, whose performance and score of 90.66 simply overwhelmed every other competitor.

Heir to the great Russian skating tradition, Plushenko seems sure to win the country's fourth consecutive gold in the men's event, a string of successes that dates from 1994, and he might be as imposing a skater as they have produced. With his stature, blond mane and ice-blue eyes, he is positively kingly on the ice. His short program, to "Tosca" by Puccini, was a piece of operatic theater that seemed to fill the entire ice. No other skater was even close to him in the height and athleticism of his jumps, or the clean edges of his landings. His spins were so perfect, his skates looked like drill bits. And he is the only skater in the world who can make footwork interesting; the speed of his reversals and switches provoked intakes of breath from the audience.

But Weir's marks were a sure sign that the judges regard him as this country's comer. They were the best he's received in an international competition and represented a significant step up, as they placed him ahead of Switzerland's Stephane Lambiel, the reigning world champion, behind whom Weir had placed fourth last March.

Weir was one of the few skaters all night to finish cleanly, and his program withstood the harsh exposure of the Palavela rink, where every slip of the foot seemed magnified. The arena is a large, cold, industrial venue, with huge banks of white lights overhead, almost phosphorous in their intensity, and bright aluminum benches and box seats. And then there were the cool stares of the judges at rink-side.

"For the judges to give me that kind of love and support is encouraging for the long program," Weir said. "I think they're starting to understand who I am and what I'm all about and starting to reward me."

Part of Weir's charm is his openness in a sport that is all about contrivance and bad acting. Skating is all brocade, tulle, velveteen, leatherette and mesh, flying bits of ribbon and little gloves. Among the performances in the short programs was a cringe-making James Bond routine, and a guy imitating a typewriter.

Amid all these devices, Weir doesn't seem to have a genuinely self-conscious bone in his body. He talks, and skates, from his heart. The great thing about the Olympics is that sometimes, the competition actually breaks through the commercialism. The Games are fully underway, and the really fresh and captivating American athletes are beginning to declare themselves, not just the personalities prepackaged by their sponsors, or in TV commercials. Bode Miller and Michelle Kwan preoccupied us before we arrived in Turin. But it's athletes like Weir who engage us without warning.

"It's something I'm very proud of, something I wasn't expecting," he said of his performance. Nobody else really was, either. And that was the charm of it.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company