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July 2002

Champions On Ice

Stressed skaters let their hair down and kiss fat women by the rink

by Steve Wilson

The Olympics annoy me on many levels, but I've never fully fleshed out these feelings. Probably because if I peeled back the layers of distaste that have built up over years of exposure to commercials of obese local car dealers who paid a fee to carry the torch, melodramatic narratives dreamed up by television producers, Mary Lou Retton, confusion about whether "Flo-Jo" was a person or a toilet cleanser, young Romanian girls banging the life from their loins on unforgiving beams of wood, and a 1984 McDonald's Olympic promotion in which I failed to win anything more than a small pack of fries while my friend somehow obtained over 100 of the prize cards and lived off free Big Macs for weeks ... I'd probably like the Games. But then I couldn't gripe about them, which is more fun. In any event, I usually get sucked in anyway, especially the ice skating.

That's why I didn't mind when my Aunt Shirley — in town on a visit with my dad — saw that "Champions on Ice" was set to arrive in a few days at the local stadium and wanted to go. Neither my dad or Erin, the woman with whom I've shacked up for several years, are particular fans of the Olympics either, but as my Dad said, "If Shirley weren't along, I'd be spending my visit just sitting on your porch." Plus, she was paying.

I had seen ice skating live twice before. The first time, my sister dragged me to a pretty boring professional exhibition that culminated in some famous Russian skater doing a scene from "Sleeping Beauty" or something. The second time was an ice skating AIDs benefit that I only remember because at the post party, amid all the happy cheery skaters and their fawning fans, a chubby Asian guy freaked everybody out by pretending to be a Mongul barbarian, complete with a Mongolian-style fur cap and a large drumstick that he'd ripped from the turkey at the food table. Everyone avoided him, and when they thought no one was looking, I saw that he and his friend were trying hard not to laugh.

"Champions on Ice" began with a very earnest light show in which several Olympic ring symbols in different colors danced and spun around the ice rink with the flags of various nations. But as soon as the Euro-Pop kicked in, it became quickly apparent that this show was a chance for Olympiads to "let their hair down."

They skated out one at a time, doing a short routine that couldn't have been longer than a minute. A simple spin in the air, a couple of twirls on the ice, a sample of their wares, and it was on to the next person or couple. I don't remember many names except those I was already familiar with: Michelle Kwan, Sasha Cohen, and that Elvis guy. The only memorable performance in this introduction was a man-boy who, by his general attitude and hair, I assumed was from an Eastern European nation. He "pushed aside" the graceful, bland couple that went on before him and strutted about doing nutty little stunts like jogging on ice as the music "cranked" rock-n-roll-esque music. He cemented his rogueish character by jumping out of the rink and kissing a large female security guard posted by the seats. What a rascal!

Oh, those wacky Russians ...

Then everyone did their full routines. They each lasted about five minutes, I guess — long enough to fit in a couple of truncated pop songs. I remember the songs better than the acts, which all started to blend together and look alike. The tunes were edgier than those allowed by stuffy Olympic judges, with their fur coats and corrupt ways (damn those judges!); most were two years old as opposed to five years old. It was a good way for me to catch up on MTV performers I'd heard about but long ago cocooned myself away from, like Destiny's Child or Smashmouth. And to reaffirm that I hadn't been missing anything.

Just as their preliminary introductions hinted, some performers were graceful and serious, others were "wacky." The crazy Eastern European guy was one of the first solo men to go on, and he set the precedent for all who followed. In pants and overcoat of the cheapest leather, he stood with his back to the audience in a rock star tableau, a cowboy hat pulled down over his eyes as he posed oh-so-sexily at the ice. Then Will Smith's rendition of "Wild Wild West" (lest we forget, Kool Moe Dee wrote the original) began and he started skating around, waving his hands in the air like they were guns. He did a lot of "wild" and "unconventional" moves like the aforementioned ice jogging, the sort of things they don't allow in the Olympics but may as well because the whole concept is rather silly when you think about it.

After warming up the audience with the first backflip of the evening, he jumped out of the rink and kissed the large woman yet again. It was already obvious he had no shame, but then he rose to new heights of debasement by returning to the ice and actually stripping down to his bare torso. He yanked at his pants as well, but it turned out he was just removing his chaps. But oh, how we all laughed. Then he jumped out again, kissed another lady, and had her slap his leather-bound ass. Rubbing his rump and wagging his finger at the lady as if her slap really hurt, he skated around some more and undermined his credibility somewhat as the bad boy wunderkind of the evening by falling twice while attempting serious moves.

It didn't matter that he wasn't so good at the "real" skating; he had made his mark. The other solo men had a difficult time following his act. Like it was an obligation, they too broke out silly moves and backflips, but it all seemed like a cheap rip-off. Even that Elvis guy, looking a might pudgy, seemed to be a man desperate for a new idea when he too jumped from the rink and kissed the nearest woman. The only ways to stand out from this guy's shadow, it seemed, were to be either completely serious, as was a very competent blonde Russian guy whose talent was matched only by the incredible stupidity of his outfit, or to be even sillier. Naturally, the latter path was filled with its own pitfalls. For instance, one guy came out dressed as Cartman from "South Park" and skated to that character's rendition of Styx's "Come Sail Away." He then doffed the fat suit midway through, revealing a dress underneath. He finished the rest of his routine in drag, skating to Aerosmith's "Dude Looks Like a Lady." Though I felt like I missed the thematic connection he was going for, it was a winning bit of theater, especially since he boosted the fleeting novelty of wearing woman's clothing with Britney Spears dance moves and other funny bits.

A few performances later, however, another seeming Eastern European tried to make funny skating to "Who Let the Dogs Out" with a stuffed dog on his arm. Maybe that kind of thing goes over well in the Ukraine, but here it just wasn't happening for him. The demands of skating with a puppet on his arm and moving its mouth in time with the additional electronic barking track someone added to an already obnoxious-enough song prevented him from doing any exciting moves. Even his mandatory exit of the rink to get a woman to pet the dog produced only minimal applause. I zoned out for the rest of the performance, and I think most everyone else did too.

By this point, the champions had almost run out of themes. A couple took the drag notion to the next level, switching not only outfits, but each other's moves as well, but however amusing it was, we'd already been down that road. There were plenty more backflips, kissing of audience members, and bad music. The only surprise was a sudden flurry of rainbows lights and the introduction of a male skater whom Aunt Shirley informed me had recently come out. His routine was notable mostly for the Village People medley that accompanied it. Erin and I probably applauded loudest for him.

The cream of the crop take the ice

Finally they got to the famous people. Sasha Cohen was very good, even though she accidentally skated out of the rink twice. It wasn't that big a deal though. I assume this rink was shorter than Olympic size, and it's not as if she was stumbling on the ice itself, unlike that mess of a "Wild Wild West" man. And darnit, she's just so cute, how could anyone think badly of her? A black woman from France who I am told is fairly well known put in a top-rate number, complete with a flip, though I can't remember if it was forwards or backwards.

Finally, it was time for Michelle Kwan. I don't remember a single thing about her skating, maybe because I was too anxious about whether she was going to fall. Before and during her presentation, the audience shouted words of encouragement like "Go Michelle!", as if she was still in competition at this was Salt Lake City. I realized that the reason people still love this two-time Olympic loser is because she represents the overworked, stressed-out American too many of us aspired to be in the 90s. Succeeding isn't so important these days as bearing the weight of the world on your shoulders while you try. And you don't even have to have dignity about it, as Kwan proved when she locked herself away in her dressing room after losing. Only a culture that venerates the sleep martyr would tolerate that kind of a tacky, graceless reaction to defeat.

After Kwan, it was time for the requisite jingoism, because nothing inspires nationalistic fervor and performance-enhancing drug abuse like the Olympics. The skaters came out dressed in different outfits based on the American flag and Cliff's Noted their routines as the speakers blared that "Freedom" song by the earnest guy: "I'm talkin' 'bout freedom! Talkin' 'bout freedom! I will fight, for my right, to have freedom!" I was thinking to myself, Jesus, why don't we all just tattoo Old Glory to our foreheads and get it over with already? The only humor to be had from this robotic oblation to the status quo was when the madcap Eastern European did his best to undermine the plastic solemnity of the occasion by acting just as silly as he had before. Though none in the audience laughed, he did his most comedic moves and even gestured for the spotlight to stay on him after it followed the next performer. I was so fed up with everybody else at that point I wished it would. But of course, the small amount of fun he injected into this hollow moment was shattered when Michelle Kwan came out for the big finale to rapturous applause.

All in all, though, it was a lovely time. Aunt Shirley loved it, Erin and I were entertained in both a genuine and ironic way, and my dad caught a very good nap that made him chipper the rest of the day.

Steve Wilson is a writer living in Austin, Texas.

copyright © 2002 Steve Wilson

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