Five-ring Circus

It’s Time for a Prime-Time Promotion

In praise of Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir, the most fabulous skating announcers in Sochi.

Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski.
Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski are fresher and funnier than any other Olympic announcers.

Screenshot via NBC

Every morning for the past week, I have woken up, made myself a cup of coffee, and sat down in front of the television to hang out with Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski. The 29-year-old, two-time Olympian Weir, who has spent every day of this Olympic Games rubbing sequins into Putin’s anti-gay eye, and the 31-year-old gold medalist Lipinski have been pulling the early shift in Sochi, announcing figure skating live on the NBC Sports Network. At night, the same routines are rebroadcast on NBC proper, announced by Olympic stalwart Scott Hamilton. But if you have only been watching Hamilton’s reliably excitable and knowledgeable play-by-play, you have been missing out one of the Olympics’ truly transcendent pairings—not to mention its very best fashion show.

Weir has received the lion’s share of attention for his fabulous outfits—the other day he wore a T-shirt made completely of lace—but he and Lipinski have been assiduously coordinated. They arrived to the men’s free skate on Friday dressed as the “glimmer twins.” (Johnny glimmered more.) On Tuesday, Weir was all over the Internet in a hot pink blazer and button-down white shirt, with a huge gold brooch at the collar. Lipinski showed up to work that day intentionally dressed to match, in a light pink blazer of her own and a gauzy headband that can only be described as overstuffed. On Thursday they did their own interpretation of the Addams Family, Johnny in a black leather jacket, white shirt, and a huge gold necklace, and Tara, his mirror image, in a white blazer, black shirt, and silver necklace, her hair flat-ironed like a blond Wednesday Addams.

The outfit coordination is delightful on its own, but it also speaks to the skaters’ love of showmanship. Tara and Johnny both know an enormous amount about figure skating. They can explain why a jump went bad, spot a mistake as it happens, opine about artistry, bring personal insight to the stressful Olympic experience, and casually toss off fascinating insights into skaters’ social dynamics. (According to Weir, “the pairs skaters have always been the cool kids,” a sentiment Lipinski strongly seconded, and which is currently my favorite fun fact from Sochi.) But they are also aware that figure skating is a spectacle, in which music, costumes, and flair matter. Weir can tell us that a jump failed in the men’s free skate because the skater delayed his takeoff too much—and also that he “applauds [a pairs skater’s] use of short shorts.” Lipinski can drop in skating terminology to explain a landing that went “squiggly,” while also sighing that she “could do without all the yellow.” True figure skating insight mixed with a little fashion police? Anyone who loves skating for what it is—a sport mixed with a pageant—could not ask for anything more.

Lipinski and Weir have an easy, mischievous rapport. Talking about pairs skating, Lipinski admitted that she was always terrible at it because she hated not being in control. Johnny, smoothly picking up the sitcom beat, replied, “I enjoy being thrown.” During the men’s free skate, Tara threw Johnny a trivia question about when he had last heard this music, accurately describing the costume of the last skater to use it as “Giraffe.” During a pairs performance, Tara murmured, “Now that’s a diva throw, Johnny,” clearly referencing some previous private conversation that I immediately wanted to hear more of.

Occasionally you can hear the two almost dissolve into giggles. Such displays of mirth will probably have to be addressed before they are given the mic on NBC in prime time (or before they are unchaperoned by announcer Terry Gannon, who gamely joins them for broadcasts as the resident adult). This frivolity establishes the fact of their friendship, which makes it possible for them to gracefully disagree about what happens on the ice. Johnny described the routine of a male skater who was technically precise but not particularly emotive as “unmemorable.” Lipinski took issue with this description, and not just because he was skating to Coldplay’s “Clocks.” (“Skating to Coldplay. You know that I’m happy right now.”)

Lipinski and Weir are also less sentimental than prime-time announcers Scott Hamilton and Sandra Bezic. They have not used announcing as an excuse to be overly bitchy. Perhaps because they retired only recently, Lipinski and Weir seem even more attuned to the anxiety of the Olympic experience. “I always skated as slowly as possible, hoping that a [ceiling] light would fall on me,” Weir said about warming up for his Olympic performances. But the duo gave a more honest accounting of the pairs winners than Hamilton and Bezic did. Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov won the gold with a free skate in which they made no big mistakes. The Times aptly described it as being “performed deliberately, seemingly less to win than not to lose.” Lipinski and Weir, while taking nothing away from the winners, didn’t overly gush about the performance, noting the mistakes it contained and the stress the skaters had been under. Hamilton and Bezic, meanwhile, praised it to the skies, with Bezic nonsensically calling it both “emotionally controlled” and “open.” When Jeremy Abbott briefly skated into first place with a clean long program after a disastrous short, Lipinski and Weir complimented his bravery, without for one second suggesting he had a chance to win a medal. Neither of them sugarcoated the low quality of the men’s free skate.

Weir has received more attention than Lipinski this Olympics for obvious reasons. Figure skating’s relationship to homosexuality—extremely intimate, rarely publically discussed—has been complicated long before Sochi. (Weir didn’t come out until he had retired.) Weir, who is married to a man of Russian descent, has been as flamboyant as he pleases in Sochi, the rare implicit political statement as entertaining as it is brave. He brings a very clear point of view to his announcing: He wants the skating to be exquisite and dramatic. There is “a sleekness and a chicness to their skating” is a classic Weir compliment. He also has a knack for punchy and playful description. “He really always reminds me of a hockey player who is a really good dancer,” Weir said of one competitor during the men’s long program.

If Lipinski does not sparkle quite as much as Weir—who could?—she often takes the lead with her opinions, and she can be wonderfully matter-of-fact. (I have only now, 16 years later, forgiven her for beating Michelle Kwan in Nagano). During the men’s free skate, which was even more fall-ridden than the disastrous men’s short program—Weir described it by saying a “general malaise fell over the building when no one wanted to win”—Lipinski got downright quippy. She suggested one skater “maybe needs to add The Secret to his reading list” and that she “needed some tango face” from another. Of the eventual winner’s skate, she said, “This performance did not have gold written on it for me,” and she described the silver medalist’s as “a safe skate. And usually you can’t win an Olympic medal skating safe.”

On Thursday, Gannon wondered partway through the short program, “What else is going to happen tonight?” “I don’t know,” Tara said, before dropping her voice to add, “this is crazy”—those three words doing more to convey how unexpectedly uneven the night had been than a million more polished comments. May she and Johnny, their fashion sense and their edge, make it to prime time in 2018.