- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 14, 2002

Two big questions, two big falls, two big answers all before the men's figure skating event even really got started.
Which Russian will win gold?
Alexei Yagudin.
Will American Todd Eldredge earn his long-awaited Olympic medal?
The drama that could have been during tonight's men's free skate was eliminated when two of the most talked about competitors took themselves down.
The anticipation of a Russian showdown between Yagudin and Evgeny Plushenko has been brewing for three seasons. Stir in the cheap shots each has taken in the past, and there's the delicious gossip for these Games.
But Plushenko cooled things off quickly Tuesday by falling on a quadruple jump in his short program and finishing fourth overall. Yagudin held up his end of the deal, finishing first by far.
"Plushenko's fall changed the dynamic of the whole competition," said ABC commentator Tom Hammond.
The expected Yagudin-Plushenko battle has turned into Yagudin's gold medal to lose.
The other question mark was Eldredge, who has been trying for two decades to win an Olympic medal. The Russians were supposed to provide the rivalry; Eldredge was supposed to be the feel-good story.
"No quad-Todd" has been harrassed all week about his inability to do a four-rotation jump. Before a commercial break on Tuesday's telecast, cameras zoomed in on backstage and a dramatic voiceover explained the importance of the skill. If that wasn't enough, NBC gave Eldredge the same treatment after the commercial break, just in case anyone missed the first shot or the dozens of remarks made by commentators throughout the evening.
In the end, Todd's quad which was two-footed didn't push him out of medal contention. Disaster instead came in the form of a botched triple axel, one of Eldredge's best jumps, one he's landed over and over in previous competitions.
While he waited for his miserable scores, a woman yelled down from the stands, "You're a great champion, Todd." It was a nice moment, maybe the nicest he'll get to have at these Games.
The only American who made it to the top three and still has a chance to medal is Tim Goebel. He skated the best short program of his career, one that included the cleanest and most difficult quad combination of the evening. He still doesn't have the artistry needed to court the judges, but an overall solid performance gave him third.
American Michael Weiss is out of the running, but it doesn't have much to do with his performance. He drew the No.1 spot in the skating order a huge disadvantage. Judges give lower marks to the first skater to leave room for those who follow, and for Weiss, they went a little too low. His minor errors didn't warrant a 4.9 from the Finnish judge any more than they warranted an eighth-place finish.
With the gold medal all but in Yagudin's pocket, the judges are the ones to watch. They were a little too generous to Plushenko. They took the manadatory 0.4 deduction for his fall on the quad, but little else, even though Plushenko didn't land the jump that other top skaters were banging out left and right.
The judges awarded Plushenko three 5.9s for artistry in a routine that included pelvis thrusting, a ridiculous silver jacket and a medley of Michael Jackson songs.
ABC commentator Scott Hamilton described the jacket as "a little flashy." Yeah, a little. Plushenko is extremely talented, but he doesn't present himself as a serious skater. He didn't deserve one 5.9 for artistry, let alone three.
Yagudin is the Russian who doesn't need any favors. He is peaking at just the right time. His performance was a thoughtful interpretation of winter with gorgeous footwork and, thankfully, without inapproprate pelvic maneuvers.
He should easily beat the men who sit in the top three with him. Japanese skater Takeshi Honda was the surprise of the evening, skating a technically clean program with a lot of energy and a quad combination. But Honda usually can't hold it together for an entire event, and his best finish is fifth at last year's world championships. His short program was top quality, but uncharacteristic. Expect him to let it slip away.
If Honda goes down, that will be Plushenko's chance to skate in. His reputation should help him back into the top three, but he may have to settle for silver or bronze.
And Eldredge will have to settle for making the trip.

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