In the 2006 Winter Olympics, a young man by the name of Johnny Weir competed in men’s figure skating. Weir skated beautifully in his short program, but not so well in the long program. He didn’t win a medal, despite high hopes from his countrymen. But his flamboyant style and unapologetic demeanor captured the attention and interest of viewers. And while his sexual orientation became cocktail-party chatter (the Chicago Tribune even took a poll about it), young people were drawn to his authenticity and candor with regard to his personal struggle to remain faithful to his unconventional style in a sport that prizes convention.
“Figure skating is thought of as a female sport, something that only girly men compete in . . .” Weir’s website was quoted as saying during this time. In his article, “Weir’s Sizzle Fizzles,” Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Phil Sheridan noted that for weeks Weir had been saying he wanted to be a role model for young people who felt they didn’t fit in—kids who weren’t on the football team or hanging out with the popular crowd. Weir himself had been one of those kids, bullied by boys playing hockey on the same ice where he would practice his figures; these bullies found it entertaining to watch Johnny dodge the hockey pucks they sent his way. However, Weir, temperamentally defiant and confident to the point of being brazen, was not a kid to be scared off the ice. In fact, Sheridan believed that Weir’s grounded comfort with himself, as well as his frankness, accounted for his sudden rise in popularity during the media’s coverage of the Olympics.
Weir’s popularity came at a price, however, that being the snide casting of suspicion about his sexual orientation. Granted, Johnny Weir played up his flamboyance and toyed merrily with the media, fanning the flames until they threatened to trump the attention he was getting for his skating. But the alacrity with which viewers jumped on the “are you or are you not gay” bandwagon is not only startling but very telling about the near-instantaneous assumptions people make about a boy’s choice of recreation and his sexual orientation.
Weir hadn’t known about the Chicago Tribune poll. “I think it’s funny that people care,” he said. “Something like that. It’s not a big deal. Who I sleep with doesn’t affect what I’m doing on the ice or what I’m doing in a press conference.” Weir hit a chord with a lot of young people during those Olympic games, just as he’d hoped to do; over the three days he performed, his website in-box went from twenty-five fan e-mails to nearly nine hundred.
That’s a lot of kids in search of a role model.
— Janet Sasson Edgette