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Why Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir may be the biggest stars of the Winter Olympics

The skaters-turned-commentators say their sport is missing the sort of stars it had in the ’90s.

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Figure skating commentators Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski Elsa/Getty Images

In the 1990s, U.S. Olympic figure skaters were household names. But today, you’d probably be more likely to know the names of the skating commentators, Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir.

“We’re very proud to educate people in a different way than maybe they have over the last many moons,” Weir said on the latest episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka. “Tara and I do things more conversationally. We’re very direct with our audience, and it’s a huge audience for us to be carrying figure skating.”

Figure skating is, in Weir’s words, “the diamond in the tiara of the Winter Olympics.” Talking with Kafka and Weir, Lipinski said part of their goal next year will be reminding viewers why that is — despite the shortage of household names.

“There really hasn’t been a name that is in the media on a daily basis and that’s what skating in the ’90s was,” Lipinski said. “Everyone knew, after the Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan incident — Tonya Harding, Nancy Kerrigan, Kristi Yamaguchi, Michelle Kwan — everyone knew these names; they were household names because they were winning, they were on TV.”

“The perception of skating was different,” she added. “It had a little more glitz and glamor, it appealed to all ages. Whereas now, we haven’t really had that star. If we do, and that star starts popping up in pop culture moments, that would change the sport, in my opinion. You never know when that could happen.”

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On the new podcast, Weir said that when he competed in the Olympic Games in 2006 and 2010, he found himself having to compete with a completely different type of celebrity than his predecessors. And the older generation of people who coach and judge the skaters don’t always appreciate how interesting and different today’s personalities can be.

“I understood, in the twilight years of my skating, who I was and what I was going to be able to do at the Olympic Games,” Weir said. “... When I was going to my second Olympic Games, it was Gaga and it was Kardashians — it wasn’t as wholesome as maybe the ’90s would have been. You have to be, in some ways, competitive in an entertainment format with that sort of person.”

He and Lipinski also reflected on how the internet is changing the sport: Figure skating superfans can follow their favorite skaters year-round, thanks to the proliferation of livestreaming options online. But during their first turn in the booth, at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, the commentators took advantage of social media.

“Our main audience really isn’t that [superfans], and I think we established that in Sochi,” Lipinski said. “We brought in a lot of people that never watch figure skating at all. We really don’t know, [but] we go off of our Instagram and our Twitter.”

“I think back to my time when I was skating: I was 15 and there was no such thing as Instagram,” she added. “Nowadays, it can only be helpful that these athletes can engage with fans and become visible on a different platform. For Johnny and I, it was a huge blessing in Sochi ... we made a joint Instagram account just because we thought it would be fun, and I remember one morning knocking on Johnny’s door and saying, ‘We had 11 followers last night, now we have 20,000 more followers!’”

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