Thursday night, in men's figure-skating finals, the biggest shocker was not Evan Lysacek beating 2006 champion Evgeni Plushenko out of the gold medal. It was the judges burying Johnny Weir in 6th place. This was after a near-perfect performance of his "Fallen Angel" program that brought the crowd to its feet. NBC commentator Scott Hamilton, who was 1984 gold medalist in men's figure skating, let out one of his typical shrieks, saying, "That is the best I've ever seen him do!" Admittedly, Johnny had entered the finals too far behind to have a shot at gold or silver, because of his 6th place in the short program. Yet some observers gave him a shot at the bronze.
Instead, it was Takahashi who got the bronze, with a performance that wasn't up to his usual standard and included a fall. So what went wrong for Johnny Weir? Was it fine points of performance? Politics? Both?
Despite figure-skating's efforts to de-politick itself, it is still a very political sport, and everybody knows it. Especially after that scandal around the pairs competition at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games. Investigation resulted in the exposure of one judge's pro-Russian bias, so the 2nd place Canadian pair were moved up to co-own the gold with the Russian pair. After Salt Lake, embarrassed figure-skating authorities put a new scoring system in place -- complicated and controverisial, because of its elaborate formulas around athleticism, but aimed at minimizing a judge's personal subjectivity.
But the smell of politics still hangs over the ice -- after all, juries in murder trials can be prejudiced by what they hear on the news, and skating judges can be prejudiced as well.
So this morning, all over the world, many sports pundits and skating fans are scratching their heads over why Weir was barred from the bronze.
True, Weir's program was a little lacking in difficulty in the non-jump elements. And he left out the quadruple jump that he'd said he would do. On the other hand, compared to the lackluster performances of Stephane Lambiel and Patrick Chan, who finished 4th and 5th, Weir's performance should have put him higher. Not only that, but many felt that Weir's solid delivery in the short program had been underscored as well.
Many of the head-scratchers are being very vocal about Thursday night. And they aren't just LGBT people who are convinced that the judges were homophobic. This morning I went to Google and searched under "Johnny Weir was robbed" -- and was amazed at the pages and pages of comments that come up. Scott Hamilton went on record with a WTF, stating right on NBC that Weir had been underscored. Even Canadian activist skater Elvis Stojko, who is trying to get "effeminate" skaters like Weir out of the sport, wrote on Yahoo, "Johnny Weir should've been higher than sixth - above Patrick Chan, who was fifth."
This morning, under a title that read in part, "Why the Judges Don't Like Johnny Weir," the Christian Science Monitor's staff sportswriter Mark Sappenfield blogged his own reasoned analysis of last night's judging. This was Sappenfield's take on Weir's score:
"Despite a flawless performance, he finished sixth. Part of that, he acknowledged, was because 'I did a lot of leave-outs,' lowering the difficulty of his routine. Yet his execution kept him in medal contention. His technical score of 79.67 was 6.19 points higher than that of bronze medalist Daisuke Takahashi. So how did Weir lose his chance at bronze? Simply put, the judges didn't like his routine much. Weir scored 77.10 points in the more subjective program components. Takahashi scored 84.50 - 7.4 points higher."
My old friend Skip Mackall, out skating figure who has been doing a radio show during the Olympics, did a different analysis in his email to me. He said:
"Well, you know I'm a Johnny fan but under the scoring system he missed the mark on some areas. The music is to be changing ie. fast, slow, fast. Also his program didn't change directions often enough, Both triple lutz jumps were weak on edge (they kinda became flip jumps, flip is inside edge, lutz outside). I think 4th was a more realistic placement."
So a case might be made that Weir fell victim to the new scoring system.
But if the judges did express any non-skating biases in the "more subjective" area that they were allowed, what were that biases? Was there a negative reaction to Johnny's off-the-ice flamboyance? The hinting that he's gay, but never saying it? Was it his palling around with Lady Gaga? The pink ribbons in his costume? And how can pink ribbons be an issue when "Think Pink" is the theme of a breast-cancer campaign and everybody, including Republican politicians and rodeo cowboys, is now wearing pink?
Were the judges also rankling against Johnny over non-sexuality issues? Like his running battle with PAWS over fur on his costume? Were they turned off by the high-powered ads for his new TV show "Johnny Be Good," which aired right during the competition? Johnny was the only figure skater who got that kind of visibility during the Games.
Barring an investigation, we may never know what really fueled that scoring. For dozens of LGBT fans' take on the robbery, there's a growing list of comments at Outsports.com this morning. I agree with those who think that Weir should have placed 4th.
One thing we do know: Johnny made no secret of the fact that he wanted to erase the public's memory of his disastrous performance in Torino 2006. He went back to the Winter Games to get that monkey off his back. He wanted to skate two clean programs -- and left out the quad jump at the last moment (always a skater's option) to make sure he could finish without a fall. And he achieved his goal. Meanwhile he kept saying that he intended to "be himself." Weir has been in the sport for most of his life -- he knows the lethal politics as well as anybody, so he surely knew that "being himself" in Vancouver might cost him. And maybe it did.
So far, in Johnny's statements to the press, he's being gracious about what happened. (Unlike Russian skater Plushenko, who is boiling over with sour grapes.) Johnny's career is clearly moving away from skating competition, into other realms of performance -- entertainment and celebrity. He's going to be around for a long time and make a pile of money. Most important, he can now do this with a clean slate. The public -- including his huge international fan base -- knows that he was a champion in Vancouver -- whether he stood on the podium or not.
Personally I'm proud of Johnny Weir's achievement -- in a historic and loaded competition where the nerves that got him in Torino could have torpedoed him again. Figure skating is a mental, spiritual and emotional discipline as well as physical. Johnny won his personal gold on all of those planes last night.
For a deeper analysis of the international politics around Weir, Lysacek and this gold medal, and how high-level and cut-throat it might have been, check out this take by an informed sports blogger.
Hat tip to Shen at Outsports