Before the 2014 Winter Olympics even started, Johnny Weir was the face of the games.
As we look back at the now concluded event, Johnny Weir was the face of the games.
During the lead up to this year's version of the Winter Olympics, little attention was paid to the athletes or the events. How could it? The attention was focused on construction delays in Sochi, on #SochiProblems, on the ridiculous $50 billion price tag and, of course, on Vladimir Putin. In particular, Putin's anti-gay agenda came under significant fire in the weeks preceding the games, particularly when he made it clear gays were allowed as long they kept the gay away from children.
Who better to represent the gay culture than Johnny Weir?
He had his own reality show. He was a guest judge on RuPaul's Drag Race – I still believe there's 75 percent chance he and Carmen Carrera met up after the show. The daily unveiling of his outfits was a Twitter highlight. Johnny Weir, simply by being Johnny Weir, was making a bigger statement than any words he could've said. The Olympic Games of 2014 were built up as the "gay games" and while that may not have materialized completely, Weir's presence exemplified how our world has changed.
Weir's presence also exemplified how our world has changed in a far different and less socially important way. Motivated to make the #NBCFail hashtag a relic of the past, NBC took significant steps to improve his Olympic coverage. It may not have been perfect but few can argue that it was a massive improvement over the London 2012 disaster. At the forefront of the Peacock's changes were the airing of every figure skating performance live on its cable sports channel, NBCSN.
To say this was a radical departure than the television habits under dinosaur Dick Ebersol is a polite understatement. This was game-changing. Not only for the Olympics, but for the fledgling cable network that delivered record ratings and for the sport of figure skating.
Did you see that word in front of figure skating? Sport? For my entire life, figure skating has not been covered like a sport during the Olympics. Maybe in 1988, when the Battle of the Brians captivated the world, but I was a mere six-year old. My memories begin, like many my age, with the Tonya/Nancy soap opera and every Olympic figure skating competition since then has been a passion play, more pro wrestling than pro football.
This is where Johnny Weir became the star of the 2014 Winter Olympics – he treated his sport like a sport and the viewer was better for it. This is not to diminish his co-hosts, as Terry Gannon proved again why he is one of the sports world's most underrated announcers and Tara Lipinski, like Weir, focused on the sport of figure skating.
I had the unique experience of actually watching way too much figure skating coverage thanks to a snowstorm and a President's Day holiday, that gave me five days in my apartment. That's a long time to be home during the winter, especially when a snowstorm in DC means you ain't going anywhere.
So with few options, figure skating got the television as I worked from home those two days. To my complete and total shock – I was engrossed by the coverage.
Watching figure skating like that ratcheted up the intensity ten-fold, from the overproduced soap opera crap NBC delivered in primetime, with only Scott Hamilton proving to be an adequate announcer. If we never hear Tom Hammond announce figure skating, we'll all be better for it.
But during the live coverage on NBCSN, there was no time for that. It was just skater after skater after skater. The trio in the booth told the story as it was happening – they didn't have 10 hours to create and craft a narrative.
This came into play during the car wreck that was the men's figure skating competition. I am not being facetious when I say every single male figure skater fell. The only one in the Top 10 after the short program that did not fall went from ninth place to the bronze medal. It was like a highlight reel of crashes. It was stunning. It was fascinating. It was must-watch television.
Yet part of that was due to Weir explaining what the hell I was watching. The scoring system in figure skating changed – to me recently, but in reality, it happened a long time ago – so Weir was there to point out the intricacies of the scoring system, as he actually performed for it in the 2010 Winter Olympics.
He explained what levels meant – that judges now grade each jump and component how well they are done individually, instead of just one score for the whole thing at the end. He explained why falls are no longer the death knell they were 20 years ago, as the levels you achieve on jumps you do complete are far more important.
When Patrick Chan took the ice for the men's long program, I felt like a figure skating insider – I knew exactly what he had to do. The door was open for Canada to win its first gold medal in men's figure skating. The tension was ratcheted up appropriately by Gannon and Weir; the live aspect meant that anything was possible. So when Chan started off hitting quad jumps, the excitement level increased. And when Chan started to crumble, you could feel the crowd groaning. And when he finally collapsed and his program fell apart, you had Weir to succinctly sum up what you had just witnessed.
There was no need for false drama – it was all there. What if figure skating had always been televised like this? Maybe sports fans like myself wouldn't be so turned off by it. Maybe more people would watch. Maybe more people will take it seriously. Maybe it doesn't matter.
Weir's performance as an analyst showcased why he is more than just a pretty face in ridiculous outfits. As Erin Andrews proved, there must be substance to back up the style. Today's viewer is too critical to settle for anything but the best. That is why Erin Andrews has returned to sideline reporting and why Johnny Weir will almost certainly – one can hope – get the call up to NBC's primetime coverage in 2018. We can only hope the pre-produced nonsense can stay in 2014, or 1994, but that is asking too much.
Of course, to say Weir was simply presenting the facts would be a gross misrepresentation of why he stole the show. NBCSN made a point of showing all the performances, which meant there were about 20 performances each day that didn't – and shouldn't have – made the primetime program.
The shade of it all – from Weir mocking one figure skater's "excessive suspender play" to playfully calling his partner Terrance as Gannon retorted, "only my Grandmother calls me that" – Weir was the gift that kept giving. I watched an hour of subpar figure skating performances because Weir made me laugh.
Funny, entertaining and knowledgable – isn't that exactly what you want from an analyst? If Weir wants to start calling college football games in the fall, I'm all up for it.
If you watched the live coverage on NBCSN the past two weeks, you know exactly what I’m talking about. If you didn't, well, you missed out on the best show in Sochi. How would I best describe it?
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