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Meet the most polarizing Winter Olympian

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Meet the most polarizing Winter Olympian
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American Johnny Weir skates during the exhibition gala at the US Figure Skating Championships in Jan …

VANCOUVER, British Columbia – The title of the television series instructs figure skating's most flamboyant star to "Be Good Johnny Weir" – but it doesn't make a lick of difference.

Johnny Weir is good, bad, controversial, outrageous, spectacular, inflammatory, provocative and whatever else he decides to be without paying heed to a shred of outside influence or advice.

When Weir takes to the ice on Tuesday night for the men's figure skating short program, he knows he will be delivering a jab to the chops of the average burger-chomping, beer-drinking, NFL-loving American sports fan. The New York-based 25-year-old describes himself as "eccentric and strange," but that doesn't even come close to painting the full picture of what he is all about.

A program from Weir is a theatrical performance that is as much about glitter, makeup, rhinestones and lace as axels and toe loops. His routine is designed to shock, with a bunch of suggestive pelvic thrusts that mean he will be loved in some sections of society but never accepted in others.

Yet there is undeniably an element of fascination with Weir, who flaunts his love of attention, drama and headlines so unashamedly that it commands an element of respect, grudging or otherwise. Even though he is thought to have less chance of a medal than fellow Americans Evan Lysacek and Jeremy Abbott, he is his own best salesman and will command far more attention than either of his colleagues.

Whether it is his ongoing battle with anti-fur activists who took offense at his proposed costume, his decision to have a woman (ice dancer Tanith Belbin) as his roommate in the athlete's village, his tales of being stalked by a crazed fan after the 2006 Winter Olympics or that TV show, Weir has self-promoted his way to relevance at these Vancouver Games with a steady stream of gossip-worthy revelations.

He may be the most polarizing athlete at the Winter Olympics and his programs on Tuesday and Thursday night are likely to spark heated debate in countless living rooms. And he will revel in such criticism. However, one barb that has drawn his ire is accusations that he lacks patriotism.

His coaches, Galina Zmievskaya and Viktor Petrenko, are Russian and Weir is never slow to extol the virtues of that country, which he finds "ferocious and dark yet colorful and soulful," and the Russian culture.

"I am always made to sound very anti-American and hateful of my own country in interviews because of the way I love Russia," Weir said. "But I also love America. It is my home and the only home I'll ever have. I don't like being called a bad American simply because I love other cultures, because to me being a good American is accepting and loving the world we live in, not only your little patch of land.

"When I started traveling to Russia to compete and perform is when I can say I truly lost my heart to it. I admire the fact that a figure skater or a ballet dancer can be the true definition of a man. I admire that speaking what's in one's heart and soul is artful and brave."

Weir's controversial fur-lined costume, which he eventually decided to ditch after threatened protests from animal rights activists, had a Russian theme – as does much of his music. According to Weir, though, there are countless ways in which he draws inspiration for both his performances on the ice and his taste in fashion – a career he is determined to pursue once his figure skating days are over.

"Anything can inspire me," he said of his style sense. "A wet trash bag in a gutter, a bird flying across a winter sky, music, a ballet performance, anything. I am one of those people who will wake up in the middle of the night to pee and have a sketch pad at the ready to write down notes or sketch something no matter the hour of day.

"I am like a sponge in many ways and I try to soak in as much of life as possible so that I can be inspired by life experiences and what the world has to offer."

Weir has not ruled out a move into acting or music after his skating career ends and he says he wants to write a "tell-all" book which would surely be full of some colorful tales. Despite becoming a highly recognizable figure over the next couple of weeks, will he turn his notoriety into financial success once the Games are over?

"Weir is a totally different kind of character to most athletes and a lot of the normal rules don't apply to him," said Mark Ganis, president of SportsCorp, a Chicago-based sports business consulting firm. "Because of how he is, he is going to get a whole lot more attention than a normal United States figure skater who is the sixth or seventh favorite to win.

"There will be some commercial spinoffs, but they will primarily be within the figure skating world. He is more likely to be invited to perform in figure skating exhibition shows and will command a higher fee because a lot of people have heard of him.

"Being extravagant and controversial is his best asset, so it is in his own interests to keep talking it up."

That much is a given. Trying to muzzle Johnny Weir is more difficult than the spectacular quad jump that separates the men from the boys at the top of the sport.

"It seems in many ways that controversy follows me throughout my career and I can't help that," Weir said. "I accept it more than fight it. People are very unpredictable beasts and you never know who wants to hurt you or hug you. The only thing that bothers me is when people do threaten me or my career, but I know how to deal with people and I know how to get work done even in the worst circumstances."

Weir finished in fifth place in Turin four years ago and his best performance in international competition is a bronze at the 2008 World Championships. His recent form has been mixed, finishing behind Jeremy Abbott and Evan Lysacek to place third at the U.S. Nationals.

But whatever his results, there appears to be little chance that Weir will be kept out of the spotlight and many will consider his performances must-see TV.

After all, there aren't too many male Winter Olympians happy to talk about their split personalities while getting ready to pick up their handbags from the ground next to their glitter-coated sneakers.

"I can say that on the ice I have one personality and off the ice I have a completely different one," Weir said. "I live a very free-spirited lifestyle and I am not afraid of anyone or anything aside from sharks and spiders.

"On the ice, I go inside. I become my music. I become everything beautiful that I may not be in life. I am one person and I morph into another. In both lives I am very strong and confident of myself, but in very different ways.

"But to say I'm not strange or eccentric would be a mistake in either of my worlds."

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