- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 14, 2002

SALT LAKE CITY For more than a year, Michael Weiss has agonized over it. Tinkered with it. Thrown it out the window and started from scratch.
His program in tonight's Olympic men's free skate?
"I've had so much trouble trying to find costumes that I like," said Weiss, a Fairfax resident in eighth place following Tuesday night's short program. "I've been through six already. I think it's because I just don't like figure-skating costumes in general."
Weiss has reason to fret. Garishly theatrical, blindingly flamboyant, men's figure- skating costumes operate in a parallel, Las Vegas-like universe where cheese is commonplace, bad taste is the norm and most skaters stand just a rhinestone away from complete and utter sartorial catastrophe.
And that's on a good night.
"There's this typical figure-skating costume where people like sequins and rhinestones and puffy shirts," Weiss said. "I really don't like all that stuff, but I have to stay in that realm."
That realm a land of overdressed waiters, neo-futuristic kung fu fighters and extras from "The Pirates of Penzance" was on full display during the men's short program, an event dominated by triple loops and twirling chiffon. Among the low lights:
France's Frederic Dambier, resplendent in a nipple-baring, rib-revealing sheer black shirt with flesh-colored sleeves and dark-red sequin trim.
Canada's Elvis Stojko, whose double-breasted, short-sleeve jacket had "7TI3I" embroidered on the left lapel. Whatever that means.
Japan's Yosuke Takeuchi, offsetting his tattered black pants and jacket with a red chiffon undershirt.
China's Chengjiang Li, performing in red felt pajamas, a checkerlike black undershirt and matching knee-high boots.
Australia's Anthony Liu, wearing a gutterball of a light gray bowling shirt.
Russia's Alexander Abt, sporting a black outfit with turquoise-and-tinfoil racing stripes down his arms and chest. Bonus points for a matching, side-slung belt that would have been more appropriate riding the hips of Felicity Shagwell.
"The Russians are hard to follow," Weiss said. "I don't know if they're trying to knock your eye out or what, but they've got some wild stuff."
Wild or otherwise, the importance of costumes can't be understated. For the judges, of course.
"[Costumes] can make or break a routine," Weiss said. "If you compare it to track and field, it's like not only do you have to run the fastest 100 meters, but you have to have a smile on your face, your hair has to be combed correctly, you have to have a costume that matches the music as you go across the finish line."
Looking good relatively speaking, that is isn't cheap. Skating costumes are usually custom made, and costs can exceed $1,000.
On the women's side of the Olympic draw, American favorite Michelle Kwan has her on-ice dresses made by well-known designer Vera Wang. Miss Wang also created costumes for 1994 silver medalist Nancy Kerrigan.
The price? A cool $20,000.
"She's made a lot of dresses for me," Kwan said. "Very beautiful, very comfortable. She skated, as well. It's nice that she knows what to do with rotation, she can balance the weight of the dress."
Fit is vital, as skaters can't afford costumes that slip out of place during spins and jumps. Just prior to the 1988 Olympics, East German ice vamp Katarina Witt fell out of her low-cut, strapless dress, giving judges an eyeful.
While male skaters are unlikely to suffer the same problem or pose for Playboy, as Witt later did they still consider comfort key. Otherwise, they look for outfits that match their routines.
And that's where the problems start.
"It's a look, a package, a product, really," said U.S. figure-skating coach Karl Kurtz. "The biggest don't? Don't make poor choices. Don't come out looking bad."
Easier said than done. For his Olympic short program, men's leader Alexei Yagudin skated to the strains of "Winter," tossing ice shavings into the air for added effect.
He also wore a shimmering, web-themed top that could charitably be described as whimsical and uncharitably described as a Christmas tree ornament in the Spiderman household.
"There's a different style for the Europeans, particularly the Russians," said veteran skating coach Frank Carroll. "They have the Bolshoi and the Kirov ballet. They have their costumes made in the shops for the ballet and opera houses. So they're very flamboyant, chiffon, way over the top.
"[American] boys, quite frankly, would not wear those costumes. They'd be scared to death that somebody would think they're not masculine."
Weiss can relate. In selecting his outfit for tonight, he started with a white shirt and black pants, then switched to a black sequined tee.
"Did you ever see that 'Seinfeld' with the puffy shirt?" Weiss asked. "[The first shirt] looked like that. [The second] had, I don't know, not diamonds but little sparkles around the waist and up the chest. That was cool because it wasn't puffy. But it was still a little too figure skating for me."
According to International Skating Union rules, male skaters are not allowed to perform in tights, and they cannot expose any chest hair. Judges may take a small point deduction for costumes that violate the rules.
Otherwise, anything goes. And then some.
"[Russias] Evgeni Plushenko skated a short program [earlier] this season to Michael Jackson," Weiss said. "His costume was silver pants with, like, a black leather Speedo over them. It looked like some type of S&M; outfit. If I were a judge, I would have given him a deduction."
Some things never change. At the 1998 Nagano Games, Russia's Ilia Kulik performed his short program in a mothlike outfit, then skated to gold in a white waistcoat and a shiny yellow vinyl shirt, replete with black spots.
Afterward, he took a moment to defend his taste or lack thereof.
"I don't care what you say about the shirt," he told reporters. "The shirt won."

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