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Johnny Weir, an athlete dancing to a rollicking tune

February 1, 2010 | 10:55 am

Weir Clearing my head -- and my notebook -- before leaving Tuesday for Vancouver, where I will be covering my ninth straight Winter Olympics.  (For those as math-challenged as I, that means the first was Lake Placid 1980).

I have been enthralled by the first two 30-minute episodes of Johnny Weir's Sundance Channel reality show, "Be Good Johnny Weir,'' which I caught up to after returning from the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

Those who have the impression I don't like Weir because I have written critical things about him at the last two U.S. Championships (2010 version here; 2009 version here) have read past the sentences where I called him the most engaging personality in skating.

The personality is naturally highlighted in the reality series, but that wasn't hard for directors James Pellerito and David Barba, given how Weir will say and do virtually anything and is a very quick-witted and multifaceted person. His impersonation of a Russian reporter -- interviewing Johnny Weir -- is pitch perfect, in both accent and content.

Where the directors showed their chops and what made the first two episodes so compelling was the focus on Weir as an athlete, including the physical demands on an elite skater and the often explosive relationship between him and his Ukrainian coach, Galina Zmievskaya, who can go from gorgon to doting protector in milliseconds.

"Be Good Johnny Weir" leaves no doubt he gives his body to express his soul on ice.

When I watched in Episode 2 as Weir fell repeatedly while trying to prepare for last year's nationals, it was clear just how much weight and fitness he lost to the virus that had hospitalized him in Korea a couple weeks earlier.  It did not, however, change my expressed opinion that Weir should have known better than to make the trip for a payday at an exhibition -- even if it was a charity exhibition -- so close to nationals.

The contrast between the Weir who grinds his body to the nub to become a better skater and the Weir who expresses delight after a flawed performance because his costume looked pretty seems even starker after watching the reality series.  Lately, the Lady Gaga side of Weir has gained the upper hand, just as it does in the 106-minute movie ("Pop Star on Ice''), which also aired on the Sundance Channel.

That is the side of Weir that passes off his weaknesses by saying "anyone can jump,'' as if his potentially strong artistry should be enough for him to get high scores.  The problem is A) this is a sport, and B) Weir's recent programs have been less artistically compelling because he has lacked the technical mastery that must accompany the art.

Weir's short program at the 2006 nationals, skated to `"The Swan" from Saint-Saens' "The Carnival of the Animals," was a breathtakingly beautiful blend of the two.  In the press conference that followed, he took the media on, as I wrote then, "a stream-of-consciousness trip with stops for cognac and vodka, cocaine and cigarettes, pond scum and blooming flowers and a scarf full of dead chinchillas.''

The trip was fun because Weir also had the goods to show he wasn't just taking everyone for a ride. He did it again for half his skating at the 2006 Olympics, finishing second in the short program before coming apart in the free skate; although Weir won a bronze medal at the 2008 worlds, his skating at major championships since 2006 has not had the same dynamism.  Getting back to that balance point has been the issue for him.

Watch "Be Good Johnny Weir'' (here is the complete schedule), and you will get a striking view of how hard the road has been.  "Be Better Johnny Weir'' is the as-yet-unfulfilled goal of that journey.

Asada Mao Asada at the Four Continents Championship

The first reactions to Mao Asada's victory in last week's Four Continents Championship included a widespread feeling the 2008 world champion had recovered from a disastrous start to the season and was again a factor in the battle for Olympic gold.

Just a minute.

Asada was pretty awful in the short program, turning a planned triple flip into a single and having her triple axel downgraded to a double.  And, though her free skate included two triple axels, she also got a downgrade on a double toe loop (a double toe loop!).

Though Asada's total score was a personal best for the season, 183.96, that was lower than all but two of the 15 scores Korea's Kim Yu-Na had posted since becoming a senior-level skater in the 2006-07 season. Kim's badly flawed free skate at Skate America last fall still left her with a higher overall score (187.98).

The numbers don't tell the whole story, of course.  But Asada's short-program score (57.22) at Four Continents was so low, it would have been 12th at the 2009 worlds. Her short-program score at one of her two Grand Prix events this season was significantly worse (51.94); at the other, barely better (58.96).

That means the Four Continents showing made Asada 0-for-3 in international short programs this season.  Which leaves all the questions about her Olympic chances still unanswered.

Man Marathoner Erich Segal

like the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, I skim old papers for news I missed.

There was plenty, including the Jan. 17 death of Erich Segal, whose name few people under 30 may recognize.

Most who recall Segal do so because of his syrupy 1970 novel, "Love Story,'' which was turned into a film with Ryan O'Neal and Ali McGraw that also was long on bathos.

A few may remember that Segal, an ardent marathoner, was part of the ABC commentary team at the 1972 Olympics when an imposter was on the track at the end of the race, stealing some of the marathon glory from winner Frank Shorter.  An outraged Segal yelled, "Get that guy off the track!  How can this happen at the Olympic Games!''

Segal's anger owed not only to his passion for the event but also his relationship with Shorter, who told Runner's World he had taken Segal's courses on Greek comedy and tragedy at Yale.  Like Shorter, I took those courses before "Love Story'' was published, and I was engaged immediately in the subject matter by the combination of wit and erudition that made Segal a popular professor well before he became a pop-culture icon.

Yale denied him tenure, apparently because some twits in the classics department in a swivet over the idea that a bestselling novelist who made the "Tonight Show" and about 10 times more money than they did also could be a serious scholar.

His classes filled auditoriums with students who, like me, were far more impressed by the way he explained the often terrifying power of Greek gods -- "the awful grace of God,'' as Aeschylus wrote in Agamemnon --  than by being in the presence of someone who was a star beyond academe.  With the passing of years, I remember few details of what Segal taught, but I will always be the better for having absorbed its essence.

-- Philip Hersh

Photos: At top, Johnny Weir in the exhibition gala after winning bronze at the recent U.S. Championships. Credit: Jonathan Ferrey / Getty Images. Middle, Mao Asada with her gold medal from the Four Continents Championships. Credit: Chung Sung-Jun / Getty Images. Bottom, Erich Segal in a 1971 photo. Credit: Maja Langsdorff / Associated Press