Russians may claim more skating gold

Russia, which won a controversial decision in pairs, is looking for an undisputed title in the Winter Olympic men's freestyle program. Alexei Yagudin, a three-time world champion, appears capable of delivering it after dominating Tuesday night's short program.

Yagudin, who acknowledged that he was so nervous before the short program at the Salt Lake Ice Center that he could barely feel his legs, is so confident now that he is contemplating a rare quad-triple-triple combination.

Asked whether he would risk his lead by trying the challenging combination in the long program, which accounts for two-thirds of the final score, he said, "Maybe, why not? I have a comfortable lead after the short, but I still want to be proud of myself and skate good. It's just a question of the landing."

One reason for Yagudin's bravado is the virtual elimination from gold-medal contention of Russian rival Evgeny Plushenko, the reigning world champion who came here as the co-favorite.

But Plushenko fell on his opening combination—a quadruple toe, triple toe—in the short program and finished in fourth place.

Critics of the judges, in abundance here since the decision Monday night that gave Russians Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze the pairs title over Canadians Jamie Sale and David Pelletier, felt Plushenko was propped up by presentation scores of 5.9 from three judges.

"Let's see, did he get 5.9s on his second mark?" Frank Carroll, who coaches American Timothy Goebel, asked, sarcastically. "If he fell down and he got those, what do you get when you stand up? That's interesting to me."

Nevertheless, in order to win the gold medal, Plushenko must win the long program and hope that Yagudin finishes lower than second.

"The Olympics is over,'' said Plushenko's coach, Alexei Mishin.

Not for everyone. Either Japan's Takeshi Honda or Goebel, second and third, respectively, can win the gold medal by finishing first in the 4½-minute long program.

Goebel, who trains in El Segundo, would appear to have the best chance because of his technical skills. On Tuesday night, he became the first skater in Olympic history to land a quadruple salchow, performing it in combination with a triple toe. He was nearly in tears as he skated off the ice.

"I still have a shot at getting a medal," he said. "It's not something I'm thinking about, but it's there. It's something that could happen. It doesn't change my game plan. I'm still going to go out there and go for it."

But, as for the gold, he said he will be surprised Yagudin doesn't win it.

"He's in great position to win," Goebel said. "Coming in, he was one of the gold medal favorites. Unless he has a rough go at the long, he's going to be the champion."

Americans Michael Weiss and Todd Eldredge are no longer medal contenders after finishing eighth and ninth, respectively, in the short program.

Eldredge, the U.S. champion, has rarely landed a quadruple jump in competition, but he attempted one in the short program and double-footed the landing, throwing off his combination. He then fell on a triple axel.

"It's been going so well in practice, I didn't see any reason not to try," he said of the quad. "But, really, it was the triple axel [that cost him], and that's one of my best jumps."

Men from the former Soviet Union are not threatening the Soviet/Russian gold-medal streak in pairs, which reached 11 Monday night. But they could win their fourth consecutive gold medal here after victories by Ukrainian Viktor Petrenko in 1994, Alexei Urmanov in '94 and Ilia Kulik in '98.