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Man Show has all the characters

Sun., Jan. 17, 2010

It’s Alpha Male Sunday at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

Don’t worry, ladies. Your money’s good at the box office, too.

Still, watch out for beefy construction worker types shouldering their way down the Spokane Arena aisles, sloshing beer from cups clenched in both hands, waving foam fingers every time a quad jump is landed cleanly and buying Johnny Weir licensed Lycra corsets at the concourse souvenir stands. Sure, the Vikings and Cowboys are playing on Fox, but real men love them some free skate.

Or not.

Doesn’t matter. It’s still The Man Show at the Arena, or so it’s been proclaimed. With a women’s field from the federal witness protection program, American pairs skating merely a rumor internationally and dance being, well, dance, the window is certainly wide open. And if the men’s lineup isn’t the ’27 Yankees, it’s pretty damned good – featuring as it does the reigning world champion and skaters who’ve accounted for six national championships and four world junior titles.

Naturally, U.S. Figure Skating is taking full advantage of this bonanza, again making the men the six-round semi-windup on the card and saving the ladies for the main event next weekend. Or it could have been NBC’s call.

Having finessed Conan and Leno so deftly, the Peacock is expert in the time-slot shuffle.

The skaters themselves did not exactly prolong the drama for today’s free skate. Jeremy Abbott, Evan Lysacek and Weir drove the green during Friday’s short program while other prominent contenders – Ryan Bradley and Brandon Mroz in particular – chili-dipped it up the fairway. The upshot is the Big Three are 10 points up on the field and have one foot in Vancouver, and none of them seems to really care that there’s a championship at stake.

“It’s not about winning,” Lysacek declared.

Good. That competition stuff – it just clutters up sports.

No, that’s not fair. Competition matters to the Big Three, even if their concepts of what it is don’t necessarily intersect.

Abbott seems yet to have established where he’s headed. An enormously appealing skater, at 24 he has not made any sort of splash at his two world championship appearances, and despite being the defending champ here and winning last year’s Grand Prix final a change in coaches and approach left him feeling that he’s back to “proving myself.” That led to a pronounced case of nerves Friday – but also drove him to a sensational skate.

Lysacek has moved beyond the proving stage with his world title in 2009 and in a rather regal voice admitted to “thinking about international prominence more than anything.” That didn’t lessen his annoyance with the marks he received in the short program especially after feedback on the world circuit moved him to retool his spins and footwork to score better.

And Weir, well, his competition seems to be in trying to perpetually top himself, whether with a swatch of fabric or a quote or a gyration that sends his loyal knot of devotees into a dither – the body rub and head bop he concocted to finish off his short program. You sense he could do without scores altogether.

In any event, there’s something for everyone – even the skaters chasing them like Bradley, who noted that the leading men “pushed me and got me to where I am.”

As for the notion that attention in the states is shifting to the men, he had an outlook on that, too.

“We skate a lot faster, we jump a lot higher, we throw a lot more risk into our routines,” he said, “and it’s just cool to watch. When you watch the girls skate, you’re going to see a lot more clean programs because they’re doing more what is in their comfort zone. The guys, we’re going all out and trying things that maybe we shouldn’t be trying, but we’re going to try them anyway.

“Not to mention that our men have been doing really well in international competition and we haven’t had a lady on the podium since ’06.”

Well, OK. But the turnstiles and TV ratings will still say something else, and for all that athleticism men’s skating still isn’t going to pull Bubba away from the Vikings and Cowboys today. Which, as you’d expect, fazes Weir not in the least.

“I have no problem with where my sport is as far as our fan base,” he said. “To make my sport mainstream, it would categorize it in a way it shouldn’t be categorized. Figure skating is theatrical, it’s artistic, it’s elegant, it’s extremely athletic and there’s a very specific audience for that.”

And very specific leading men, as it turns out.

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