Now, men view glitter as road to gold on ice

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Now, men view glitter as paving way to gold On the subject of figure-skating costumes, Olympic champion Scott Hamilton has one hard-and-fast rule: "The pants must stretch."

For fellow gold medalist Brian Boitano, "It must be masculine."

But Timothy Goebel, the 2002 bronze medalist, rarely gets involved in the costumes he wears. "It's not like this is the Oscars. It doesn't matter. No one is looking at what I'm wearing."

But they do look and it does matter.

All that glitters is not gold in Olympic men's figure skating. Sometimes it's the sequins and rhinestones. Or the metal chains and admiral epaulettes.

Or, as 2002 pairs gold medalist David Pelletier said of the three-time world champion: "You look at ... [Evgeny] Plushenko, where sometimes he's got feathers coming out of his butt, so it's kind of weird."

Two-time Olympic champion and TV analyst Dick Button said he finds "that some of the costumes sometimes are over the top. You almost feel as though you've been trapped in a windmill in the Metropolitan Opera House costume department."

Who's to blame?

"The Russians started it," said Jef Billings, a three-time Emmy winner who has designed outfits for Todd Eldredge, Peggy Fleming and Kurt Browning.

Men began ordering costumes with fringe and gauzy fabric because they thought fluttering would make their spins look faster. Eastern Europeans picked it up, followed by the Japanese, Billings said.

"When somebody goes and wins, then everybody wants to wear that," Billings said. "I tell skaters, 'If you want to look like you're skating fast, skate fast.' "

But even Billings made allowances, especially for women skaters. Toward the end of her career, Fleming asked him to design a costume that moved "because I'm not going to."

Although things were more conventional back in the 1940s and '50s, when Button skated, he doesn't have fond memories of those outfits. The clothes, he said, "were horrendous. They were full suits. You had shoulder pads and usually a shirt and a tie, and if you were lucky, you found one piece of clothing that had movement.

"I envy today the skaters who come out in a shirt and a pair of trousers."

Thumb through photos of Olympics past and you'll notice a change right about the time Hamilton won in 1984.

The diminutive skater said a judge told him that he was not projecting size on the ice. In response, he ordered a simple one-piece speedsuit, "red on the top to get attention and blue on the bottom to accentuate my legs and disguise my lack of height."

By the next Olympics, it was the battle of the Brians - Boitano and Orser - and the battle of the admiral's braid, with the American Boitano outranking Orser, the Canadian, for the gold.

The sparkles escalated in 1994 when Russian Alexei Urmanov soared to the gold with puffy white and silver sleeves that made him look like a seagull.

By the time the next Winter Games rolled around, Urmanov's countryman, Ilya Kulik, won wearing two costumes that got more ink than his skating.

For the short program he wore a moth-like costume symbolizing "a man caught in the net of life." In the long program "he looked more like a bumblebee or a giraffe in a shiny yellow vinyl shirt with large black blotches," said David Wallechinsky in The Complete Book of the Winter Olympics.

"The men's costumes have gotten a lot better," said Button, mentioning the simplified look of this year's American team members Evan Lysacek and Matt Savoie.

But there's a third member of the team who more than makes up for the other two and perhaps the rest of the Olympic field: Johnny Weir.

Weir began the defense of his national title last month dressed as a swan, his black-and-white jumpsuit featuring one fishnet sleeve and one adorned with white feathers. On his right hand was a gauzy red glove - a beak - he named Camille, after the composer of The Swan, Camille Saint-Saens.

It was not his first foray into the land of the bizarre. Weir has described other outfits as "an icicle on coke" and "a Care Bear on acid."

But in these Olympics, Weir may have competition from Plushenko of Russia, France's Brian Joubert and world champion Stephane Lambiel of Switzerland

"Joubert can go over the top with ropes around himself. Lambiel gets a little bit bizarre on occasion," said Button. "But these costumes have gotten a heck of a lot better ... and there's a lot less fuss and feathers."

Pelletier's gold-medal costume came off the rack at Banana Republic. His pairs partner and spouse, Jamie Sale, said it's all a matter of individual taste. "Of course, we all have our opinions about different skaters and we think, 'Well what were they thinking?' but they look at us and say, 'Well, what were they thinking?' "

There's a lot riding on appearances.

"We were told at one competition that our costume was wrong and we were going to lose the world championships because our costumes were wrong," Pelletier said.

Billings agrees, noting he's had skaters throw out whole costumes after a disparaging remark by a judge.

Goebel, who retired last month, would like to see a return to the basics.

"A great choreographer once said that everyone should skate in a black body suit and we'll see who's the best performer," he said. "I think there's something to be said for that. Your costume isn't why you're there."

But maybe it is. After enduring the criticism and winning the gold, Kulik told reporters: "I don't care what you say about the shirt. The shirt won."

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

2006 Games

Site: Turin, Italy

Opening ceremony: Friday

Closing ceremony: Feb. 26

TV: Chs. 11, 4, CNBC, MSNBC, USA

Sun blog: baltimoresun.com/olympicsblog

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