February 13, 1998

Kulik, Stojko and Eldridge 1, 2, 3 in Men's Figure Skating Short Program


NAGANO, Japan -- Through four hours of clean, if tense and careful, skating in the men's short program, absolutely nothing was decided. The favorites did not make mistakes. They did not unravel the expected order of finish. And they did not make it any easier for the judges to decide who should win the Olympic gold medal.

Ilya Kulik of Russia finished first, Elvis Stojko of Canada second and Todd Eldredge of the United States third. But none of the three skaters received a majority of first-place votes from the nine judges. The skater who delivered the most inspired program Thursday night -- 17-year-old Alexei Yagudin of Russia -- finished fourth. The judges seemed to be hinting that his turn will come at the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City.

"It's like ice dancing," complained Alexei Mishin, who coaches Yagudin. "They decide before and they never go away from what they decided."

The top three contenders advanced to Saturday's long program with their own particular strengths and weaknesses. Essentially, Kulik, Stojko and Eldredge are even. The four-and-a-half-minute long program will count for two-thirds of the scoring. If any of these skaters win the long program, they will also win the gold medal. Nothing is certain except that there will be a new Olympic champion.

Alexei Urmanov of Russia has a groin injury and is not trying to retain his title. Who will be his successor? There are only hints, no guarantees.

"I don't think any messages were sent," said Richard Callaghan, who coaches Eldredge. "I think it's open."

If the judges sent any message, it was that they prefer Kulik's artistry. He received 5.8s and 5.9s for presentation. And because the artistic mark is the tie breaker in the long program, if the 20-year-old Kulik skates cleanly, he is likely to win, just as he did over Stojko and Eldredge at an Olympic preview in December.

On Thursday night, Kulik delivered a performance as gossamer as the wings on the sleeves of his costume. He was unhurried and refined and he landed his jumps with softness and flow. But he received only four first-place votes, which means he is not a decisive favorite for a gold medal.

Kulik has lacked stamina in the past and has been known to dissipate in the free skate. Also, these are his first Olympic Games. No man since Dick Button in 1948 has won the Olympics on his first attempt.

"It was nothing special, but it was OK," Kulik said of his short program. "I have a good chance to win a gold medal. I'm going for it. History is yesterday. Tomorrow is, who knows?"

Kulik will have the disadvantage of skating first among the contenders. He will not know with any certainty whether to take chances or play it safe. But if he does not make a mistake, his chances of winning are inviting. Judges tend to favor artistry in the Olympics, and Kulik is the most artistic of the contenders.

"I think Kulik is preferred," said Tamara Moskvina, coach of the Olympic pairs champions from Russia. "For Western judges he has better style -- artistic, flow, easy, nice lines."

If Kulik has the artistic edge, Stojko has the technical advantage. Kulik has a quadruple jump, but Stojko can land his quadruple toe in combination with a triple toe. He won a silver medal in 1994; to win a gold in 1998, he will need to boost his technical marks as high as possible with a quad and eight triple jumps in a powerful, determined free skate.

"I don't think it's Ilya's to lose," said the 25-year-old Stojko. "Alexei won the gold medal in 1994. It's up for grabs right now. Whoever deserves it is going to win it."

Philippe Candeloro of France, the 1994 silver medalist, who finished fifth in the short program, said that Stojko's experience and jumping ability should make him the gold-medal favorite.

"It is logical that a three-time world champion should win the gold medal," Candeloro said. "Elvis is the only one who can do the quad and all the triple jumps. But if you do a quad and nothing else, it's bull."

Still, the short, stocky Stojko received marks as low as 5.6 and 5.7 for artistry Thursday night. The Canadian judge, Sally Rehorick, awarded him a perfect 6. But she is also the person who provided him with the Japanese drum music for his short program, and many wonder whether her presence on the panel is a conflict of interest.

Eldredge, the 1996 world champion from Bloomfield Hills, Mich., is the only contender who has not landed a quad in competition. And, skating after Kulik in the final group on Saturday, he is not likely to attempt one at the Olympics. He is a brilliant spinner and a consistent, reliable skater. Standing up under the suffocating pressure of the long program may be all he needs to win a gold medal. The quad, he said, is not a priority.

"I don't think it's that big a deal," Eldredge said. "The quad takes eight-tenths of a second and you still have 4 minutes 40 seconds left. That's a lot of time for other things."

After feeling dead legs during warm-ups, Eldredge recovered and skated an unblemished, if unengaging, short program to "Les Miserables." He didn't self-destruct like his teammate Michael Weiss, who fell on his combination jump and finished 11th. And Eldredge will likely play it safe on Saturday, apparently satisfied to win a medal, even if it is not a gold medal.

"I think everything I do is well-rounded," said Eldredge, who has added more ambitious footwork to his long program. "I don't hear everyone say I'm a great jumper. I don't hear people say I'm artistic. They say both together in the same breath. I hope on Saturday that makes the difference."

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