February 14, 2006

Majestic Plushenko eyes gold

By Pritha Sarkar

TURIN (Reuters) - Yevgeny Plushenko laid the foundations
for capturing the only gold medal missing from his collection
by establishing a commanding 10.66-point lead over American
Johnny Weir at the Winter Olympics on Tuesday.

The Russian favorite, silver medallist behind compatriot
Alexei Yagudin in Salt Lake City, put his recent health woes
behind him to earn a personal best of 90.66 with a near
flawless display in the men's short program.

Weir unexpectedly finished second with 80.00 after all the
other title contenders faltered. Switzerland's Stephane Lambiel
was third with 79.04.

"Today I showed the best result of this season. I'm very
happy I showed the best result in the Olympic Games," Plushenko
said abruptly before barging in to the dressing room.

Plushenko stepped on to the ice looking tense and took his
time skating to his starting position.

He began his routine with a high-flying quadruple-triple
toeloop combination and once he nailed two more triple jumps,
the 23-year-old loosened up.

The former triple world champion's fast-paced step
sequences and captivating choreography to Puccini's Tosca
raised roars of approval from the fans.

Punching the air in delight, Plushenko skated off blowing
kisses to his fans, knowing his rivals would have to come up
with something special to surpass him.

No one came close.

The field included world champion Lambiel and 2004 European
gold medallist Brian Joubert, yet it was livewire Weir who
sneaked into contention with his clean if not daring program.


The American, who declared himself a 'wildcard' for a
medal, was the only competitor among the top four not to
attempt a quadruple jump but he was rewarded for his error-free

Despite his placing, Weir was not about to get carried

"I'm certainly (surprised) going into second place ahead of
the world champion," said Weir.

"I'm not going to count my eggs before they hatch. If
Plushenko falls three times (in the free skate), maybe, just
maybe, somebody can slip past."

Lambiel had been expected to be Plushenko's main challenger
but a knee injury he suffered two weeks ago sapped his

The European silver medallist doubled his opening triple
Axel before completing the rest of his program cleanly.

Frenchman Joubert took center stage dressed in black and
white as Secret Agent 007.

But he began his energetic performance to the James Bond
soundtrack by putting his hand down on his opening quadruple
jump and downgraded the next jump to a double.

His score of 77.77 left him trailing fourth.

Joubert, one of only two men to have beaten Plushenko since
the 2002 Olympics, was not impressed by the five-times European
champion's performance.

"I thought he'd get 85 or 86. When I saw 90 I was
surprised," he said. "I think it's too much. The judges like
him so that's good for him."