Sports: Johnny Drama

Figure-skater Johnny Weir makes headlines for his bad-boy life off the ice.

It begins with echoes of a tolling bell. The first 10 seconds of music get cued and re-cued while Johnny works on the intro at least 20 times, each more focused than the last. He’s serious, and the performance is serious, accelerating with jumps and runs across the ice, ending with 20 solid seconds of standing and sitting spins.

Against the boards, Johnny’s new coach, Galina Zmievskaya, stares. Zmievskaya is, to say the least, the polar opposite of motherly Priscilla Hill. A stern five feet, give or take, in knee-high furry boots and a Bolshevik-red coat, she sports fuzzy blond hair and a seemingly permanent scowl. Her hands folded behind her or crossed in front, she looks like the Kim Jong Il of ice skating. She barks commands, mostly in Russian. Johnny — knowledgeable in French, Russian and Japanese; he studied linguistics before dropping out of the University of Delaware — has made a point to learn the native tongues, not just of his coaches, but of his fans, especially the Russian ones. He’s obsessed with all things Russian. “I probably have too much fur,” he confesses to me. On his MySpace page he declares himself an anti-PETA poster child. That page also lists his hometown as Moscow. He wore Soviet Union-inspired apparel at the Olympics, and now is being trained by the woman who took Baiul and Viktor Petrenko to world titles. Johnny may be eccentric, but he’s also calculating and deliberate.

“Competing is exciting and it’s fun, you put on the costume and the makeup, but this is it,” he says. “This is ice skating, in practice rinks. In practice, we cry, we get pissed off, we kick walls, we spit, we punch things. But people never see that, because when we’re on the ice, we’re glittery snow angels.”

So can Johnny Weir finally get it all together? (And we don’t mean accessorizing Gucci — we know the answer to that.) He has become a celebrity, but based mostly on showmanship instead of athletic achievement — on his sheer brazenness in thumbing his nose (and other body parts) at skating’s stodgy establishment. Beneath all the sequins and smart-aleck remarks, one thing is clear: Johnny Weir wants an Olympic medal.

It’s going to be tougher than ever to earn. A new scoring system implemented by skating’s professional body in 2006 emphasizes athletically demanding performances — more points for jumps, fewer for showmanship. “I like to make an impression, I like to make art,” Johnny says. “With the new judging system, it’s taking away the individuality of the sport. At the moment, it’s looking a little bit like tennis, just hitting back and forth and nothing changes. That’s a shame to me.”

But the skater who thrives on drawing in the crowd with aesthetics isn’t buckling. His latest costume is split down the middle, black on one side, white on the other, like a crazed yin-yang sign. Low-cut in the back, and, ahem, off the shoulders. Crisscrosses everywhere. A red heart over the chest. It’s no swan, but it could be Dancing with the Stars material.

He glided away with gold at both the Cup of China and the Cup of Russia in November, but the real test — the one that will show whether Johnny Weir has any Freon left in the tank — is the 2008 U.S. Championships in St. Paul, Minnesota, on January 27th. He’ll be showing off a four-and-a-half-minute program titled “Love Is War” that may determine which of those will define his relationship with the skating establishment before his career ends.

“If he really is saying ‘I’m back, I’m better,’ I don’t think there’s any stopping Johnny Weir,” says USA Today sports columnist Christine Brennan. “Johnny’s problem is Johnny, not the judging system.”

When I ask Johnny Weir what he thinks of his critics — the press, the judges, those who bitch about him behind his back — it’s fitting that he doesn’t say a word.

He just holds up a middle finger and grins.