Yagudin Poised for Gold Medal

SALT LAKE CITY -- The Russian rivalry fizzled out as soon as world champion Yevgeny Plushenko crashed to the ice. In its place could be a free skate to gold for countryman Alexei Yagudin.

With Elvis Stojko and Todd Eldredge also missing jumps, Japan's Takeshi Honda took a hold of second place behind the Russian and ahead of the leading American contender, Tim Goebel.

Yagudin, who placed fifth at Nagano, Japan, four years ago, scored a 0.5 factored placing while Honda had 1.0 and Goebel 1.5. Plushenko, at his first Olympics, placed fourth with 2.0, two-time silver medalist Stojko placed seventh with 3.5 and Eldredge, fourth in 1998, was ninth with 4.5.

Dressed in a black-and-white costume resembling a tree with snow covering the branches, Yagudin went from a bit cautious at the outset of his winter-themed program to a near tap dance in the middle to a magnificently tight, quick spin at the end.

From picking up snow and throwing it in the air to blowing kisses to the crowd with a minute remaining, he entertained the fans -- and seemed to have just as much fun himself.

"I was a little bit nervous because it is the actual Olympics," said Yagudin, who skated with a high fever. "It's not the Russian nationals, it's not Europeans, it's not worlds, it's the Olympics. It's two times tougher to skate here."

Honda, who fell apart under the pressure of skating at home in the 1998 Games, had no problems this time. He hit a quad toe-triple toe to open his routine to "Don Quixote," and also did a strong triple axel and triple lutz.

"No pressures, today is nice and comfortable," the Japanese said. "I feel it was my best this season."

Plushenko, in disco silver and black, had all the Michael Jackson moves. What he didn't have, stunningly, was his quad toe loop, which he botched, effectively eliminating his combination jump as well.

That performance means he will need help in the free skate, even if he wins it. If Yagudin, a three-time world champion, were to finish second to his rival on Thursday, he still wins the gold.

"The Olympic Games are over," said Plushenko's coach, Alexei Mishin. "Probably pressure."

Plushenko withdrew from the European Championships with a groin injury, although he also was working on a new free-skate program that will need to be spectacular now.

Canada's Stojko could have soared into contention again. The last skater on the ice, he stepped out of his quad jump, then traveled badly on his sit spin, dropping him to seventh.