Five-ring Circus

Jumping vs. Twirling

Evan Lysacek, Evgeni Plushenko, and the battle for the soul of men’s figure skating.

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Evan Lysacek

The Winter Olympics men’s free skate program was heralded as a proverbial “battle for the ages” between defending Russian gold medalist Evgeni Plushenko and American Evan Lysacek. More precisely, it had been billed as a battle between modes of performance. Plushenko, the reigning master of the elusive “quad” jump, represented brawn. Lysacek, who avoids performing a quad jump, represented technical artistry. For days, the wiry (and wily) Russian had been beating the media drums, planting the pernicious notion that it is not fitting to give a gold medal to a man who doesn’t quad. On Thursday night, the judges didn’t heed Plushenko’s advice. The Russian landed a quad jump, but it was Lysacek, garbed in a glittery, black, princess-sleeved onesie, who seized first place. *

In the end, the competition wasn’t a simple referendum on artistry vs. athleticism. While Plushenko churned out his two quads as casually as a practiced old man spits sunflower seeds, he is also a reasonably lithe, fluid skater. And last night his athleticism was not at its apogee: He launched a hefty portion of his jumps from a peculiar Tower-of-Pisa angle, and wobbled to stay upright on landing. “This guy’s a cat!” Scott Hamilton exclaimed, watching one of Plushenko’s off-center jumps in slo-mo replay, adding, perhaps less than usefully, “Woo-woo-woo-woo-woo.” (This Olympics, Hamilton has taken to offering speechless groans following big jumps—”aaugh!” he exclaims, indeterminately—rather than commentary.) Perhaps Hamilton meant us to think of an ice-rink version of the Doppler effect—for it is almost as if air distorts around the lanky Russian, allowing him to find his feet where other skaters would not.

Plushenko is like a cat in more ways than one—there’s a kind of “Screw you, I love myself” quality to his skating that makes him seem as self-contained and nerveless as a feline being. (He’ll purr only when he wants to, thank you very much.) When NBC’s Andrea Joyce asked him after his program if he thought he’d skated well enough to win gold, he said “Of course.” Even when he falters, he hardly looks shaken—like a cat, he shakes it off. In the long spaces between jumps, he preened, engaged in a come-hither hip slither—this effect was heightened by his costume, some kind of black unitard patterned with a sequined tie and tuxedo vest—blew kisses at judges, and, at one point, ran his hand down his face and pulled his lower lip down with his fingers in what appeared to be a moment of onanistic ecstasy. (Alas, Scott Hamilton didn’t groan in response.) Mostly one marveled at his extraordinary ankle ligaments and calf strength. He deserves the gold medal for strong feet.

Lysacek, by contrast, has weak feet. It’s one of the reasons he’s not pursuing the quad jump as madly as the rest of the pack. “I used to really enjoy training the quad, and I thought it was really important to try it in every competition. But several times I fell. Then I broke my foot, and it became less fun and more scary,” he said recently. Lysacek is extremely skilled technically, yet he is not the most graceful skater. In his black onesie, with his long arms and legs and his slicked-back hairstyle—a pomaded look that makes his head seem smaller than it is—he resembled nothing so much as a water spider that had woken up in Antarctica. He skittered and leapt and swiveled, his arms waving up and down (he seems to forget his hands are attached). Near the end, his hair came loose and popped up as he twisted into a spinning web of arms and legs. Powerful and flexible, he dominated the ice but didn’t seduce it.

The real battle between artistry and athleticism could be seen in the competition for third and fourth, between Japan’s Daisuke Takahashi, the utterly expressive skater who took the bronze, and the Swiss skater Stephane Lambiel, who is capable of excellent artistry but delivered a rather flat performance—until the very end of his program. Takahashi moves like a dancer—he makes the rink seem more a watery than a frozen medium, moving his arms like tree branches in the wind. He was by far the most graceful skater to perform last night. Browbeaten by the new athleticism, he felt the pressure to go for the “quad” and he fell early on—I mean, full-on wipeout kind of fall.

As NBC’s Sandra Bezic noted, skaters usually go to pieces after a fall like that. Takahashi didn’t, and as he got back into the performance I wished he hadn’t lunged for the golden ring of the quad. The rest of the program was lovely, and a successful triple axel (instead of a failed quad) would have underscored his talent. By contrast, Lambiel went all out for power, sort of landed two quads—his hand touched down on the first—and was otherwise rather lackluster (though I do like those wild spins he does with one hand up in the air, creating an optical illusion of a glass ceiling just above). On this night, athleticism won out—Lambiel scored five points higher in the free skate. Happily, Takahashi had dominated in the short program, and he held on to win the bronze medal by a little more than half a point.

Back in sixth place was the drama queen everyone loves to hate, Johnny Weir. In his short program, he had skated to Raul Di Blasio’s “I Love You, I Hate You.”On Thursday, his program was called “Fallen Angel,” which, Bezic explained, is how Weir has thought of his position in figure skating ever since he failed to bring home a medal from Turin in 2006. I love Weir in all his weirdness. I love that his skating conveys personality in all its freakish fragility, and that his personality on ice is connected deeply to his expressiveness off-ice. In Vancouver, he is rooming with female ice dancer Tanith Belbin. Here’s what he told some reporters about preparing for her arrival: “I’m a good nest builder. I made sure the room was clean. I put stuff away. I made sure it smelled very nice. I brought Windex. I brought Pledge. And I brought Pledge Wipes, just in case. I get no money from Pledge, but I just love their multi-purpose wipees because you can clean your computer and your bath tub with the same wipee.”

Weir is the Maria Callas of ice skating: slightly awkward, even grating, as a performer, and yet (to some of us) utterly enchanting. He accesses a register of experience—vulnerability, mainly—that most polished performers have no idea how to channel. Takahashi is a far more elegant skater than Weir, who, with his feathery stitching and white-gloved hands reminded me more of Edward Scissorhands than, say, Michael Jackson. Weir hunches when he skates; his head is always slightly forward over his shoulders, and you get the feeling his back is not very flexible. His spins are fast but gawky, and when he rises from a sit spin to a camel spin or standing spin you can detect an odd curvature in his shoulders and spine; he almost looks uncomfortable. The overwhelming sense I have when watching Weir is of a person who doesn’t want to live in the body in which he finds himself.

This quality may mean that he is not the most brilliant skater in the world, but it does mean that he is the most distinctive—one of the most memorable athletes I’ve ever seen. Athletes, after all, are people who feel gifted in their bodies. We watch the Olympics precisely to express our awe at bodies that move with ease and accomplish efficiently what we could only dream of. Weir’s relationship to the body is more complex. Watching him skate in feminine corsets, hunkering into his spins, then flirting with the camera and cutting his eyes—what eyelashes!—off to the side like a flirtatious 1940s movie star, I think of what the poet Frank Bidart wrote about Ellen West, the famously analyzed anorexic:

But my true self   
is thin, all profile

and effortless gestures, the sort of blond   
elegant girl whose
                            body is the image of her soul.

—My doctors tell me I must give up   
this ideal;
                  but I
WILL NOT … cannot.

Weir, like no skater I’ve seen before, has a body that reflects all of the awkward yearning of his soul. Evan Lysacek may have the gold and Evgeni Plushenko the silver, but Weir is in a category of his own: Best Human Attempting To Be a Figure Skater.

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Correction , Feb. 19, 2010: This article originally stated that Evgeni Plushenko landed two quad jumps in the men’s free skate program. He landed one. (Return to top.)