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Plushenko giant in short program

  • Until he came out of skating hibernation this season, Evgeni Plushenko had settled himself in for a long winter’s nap - three years long, in fact. But when Mother Russia needed him back for the Olympics, the defending champion dutifully rubbed his eyes, dusted off his skates and emerged from retirement with his jumping skills still intact. “I am nervous today because it is the Olympic Games,’’ the 27-year-old Plushenko said last night after he’d won the men’s short program by little more than half a point ahead of world champion Evan Lysacek. “Every Olympic Games, it is hard to compete.’’ But just as he was in Turin four years ago, Plushenko is the man to beat in a field that also included former world titlists Stephane Lambiel of Switzerland and Brian Joubert of France. Barely 40 seconds into his program, he’d piled up 32 points with a quadruple toe-triple toe combination (14.80), a triple axel (10.00), and a triple lutz (7.20). “I skated not bad,’’ reckoned Plushenko, who posted 90.85 points to Lysacek’s 90.30. If Plushenko can hold off his rivals again in tomorrow night’s free skate, he’ll be the oldest Olympic men’s champion since Sweden’s Gillis Grafstrom in 1928 and the first to repeat since Dick Button in 1952. Yesterday though, Plushenko needed every one of his 51.10 points for technical elements to hold off his American rival, who had a 42.00 to 39.75 edge in artistic components and has a chance to win the gold medal if he can skate flawlessly. “I had some pressure coming in as reigning world champion and I felt it,’’ said the 24-year-old Lysacek, who won in Los Angeles last year to become the first American champion since Todd Eldredge in 1996. “Also, I had a little bit of a monkey on my back because of how I skated my short program in Turin. To be able to go out and silence that felt very good.’’ The US hasn’t won the gold since Brian Boitano upset Brian Orser in 1988 in Calgary and has failed to make the podium at three of the last four Games. The Yanks had history going for them here, though, since all of their reigning world champions - Button (1952), Hayes Jenkins (1956), David Jenkins (1960), and Scott Hamilton (1984) - have won at Olympus. All of them, though, also came here as US champions. Lysacek had finished second last month to defending titlist Jeremy Abbott, who had a nightmarish outing last night and is buried in 15th place. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think that would happen,’’ said the 24-year-old Abbott, who landed his opening triple flip combination, but then singled his triple axel and doubled his triple lutz. “I don’t know when it went wrong but something happened and the next two jumping passes just disintegrated.’’ Abbott’s collapse, which nearly mirrored his woeful outing at the world championships, was countered by a surprisingly sound effort from Johnny Weir, the former three-time US champion who barely made the Olympic team. “I actually had fun tonight and that’s something I haven’t been able to say for a long time,’’ said the 25-year-old Weir, who is in sixth place behind Lambiel. “Tonight was everything I was hoping it would be.’’ Plushenko, who had to be coaxed out of retirement by his federation to give the Russians a chance to win a fifth straight gold medal, wasn’t sure what he should be hoping for. Because he hadn’t competed between the Turin Games and this season and therefore had a low international ranking, Plushenko found himself skating two hours before the other contenders, tossed in with a group of phonetic challenges - Abzal Rakimgaliev, Przemyslaw Domanski, and Ari-Pekka Nurmenkari . It was his first global appearance since the last Games and while there were a few cobwebs showing, especially on landings and transitions, Plushenko laid down a powerful and clean program. If anything, his free skate is even more demanding and since Lysacek probably won’t attempt a quad, the Russian should have a decided technical edge. “It is not end of fighting,’’ said Plushenko. “Fighting will be in the free program.’’

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