SALT LAKE CITY -- Three major questions surround the men's free skate Thursday night:
1. Can anyone catch Russia's Alexi Yagudin, a three-time world champion,who held the top sport after Tuesday's short program? Yagudin's expected major challenger, fellow Russian Evgeny Plushenko (the reigning world champion), fell during his short program and plunged into fourth place and out of gold medal contention.
2. Which skater will have the best quad, or quadruple jump? In the 1998 Winter Olympics at Nagano, only three quadruple jumps were done in the entire competition. In Monday's short program, 13 different skaters had quadruple jumps in their programs, five of them using with two different variations. And America's Timothy Goebel, who stands a solid chance to medal after a third-place finish in the short program, executed the first quadruple salchow in Olympic history Tuesday night.
3. Can Goebel, clearly the best jumper among the American skaters, be solid enough in his overall presentation to medal?
Even though he can win gold without taking a whole lot of risks, Yagudin almost guarantees attempting a quad Thursday night. "Why not?'' he said. "I have a comfortable lead, but I want to be proud of myself and skate good a couple of days. It's just a question of the landing.''
Takeshi Honda of Japan, 15th at Nagano, is surprisingly in second place after the short program. He also executed a quad Tuesday night.
"Right now, I'm just happy to have skated a clean short program,'' he said. "The idea, of course, is to skate my best in the free and hope I can end up
with a high ranking.''
Although a lot will have to happen for Goebel to take gold, he's certainly within striking distance of silver.
"I was not expecting to be in this position,'' he said after Tuesday's performance. "It's just a thrill to have skated so well and placed so well. The crowd (more than 16,000 at the Salt Lake Ice Palace) was absolutely amazing. I've never experienced anything like that in my life.
"Really, my goal here is to land three quads. I haven't done it yet this season and it's been going really well in practice. I didn't envision myself being this high with all the other medal contenders here.''
Vetern skaters Michael Weiss, Todd Eldredge of the United States and Elvis Stojko of Canada were among those who fell out of medal contention Tuesday.
For Weiss, a two-time bronze medalist in the world championships, it was just bad luck.
He drew the No. 1 spot and even though he skated nicely and had one of the best overall performances, the judges scored him low to leave maneuvering room for those who followed.
"First position is a tough place to skate, especially at this competition because there're 29 skaters,'' he said. "At natiionals, there're 12, 14, 18 at the most. That's the way it goes. Sometimes you draw first and sometimes you draw last.''
Eldredge and Stojko, clearly crowd favorites, will likely skate one of their last amateur performances before turning pro.
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