SALT LAKE CITY As cheers filled the Salt Lake Ice Center and big numbers lit up the scoreboard, another great figure skating upset was confirmed Thursday night.
The judges actually got one right.
Three days after everyone but the rinkside panel saw something inappropriate in the scoring in the pairs competition and with a vote-trading scandal still hanging over the sport, the best skater won the men's figure skating gold.
Russia's Alexei Yagudin skated the most-conservative, but cleanest free program last night and his success was reflected by the capacity crowd's reaction as well as the scores. Yagudin earned four perfect 6.0s, twice as many as had ever been awarded a skater in the Olympics, and nothing lower than a 5.9 to hold off insufficient challenges by those skating before him Thursday.
Evgeni Pleshenko, also of Russia, came from fourth place after Tuesday's short program to earn the silver, while American Timothy Goebel took the bronze after finishing third both nights. .
And all of figure skating took a breath of the slowly clearing air.
"I began to dream about this for years ago, when I went to Nagano,'' said Yagudin, who finished fifth in the 1998 Olympics. "There, I finally realized I can do it.''
The eventless result was the first step back from one of the greatest disgraces the controversial sport has ever endured.
From the moment Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze, of Russia, were awarded the pairs gold (although it was widely believed Canada's Jamie Sale and David Pelletier skated a superior long program Monday), figure skating's judging process has been an easy target for criticism and the source on international controversy.
The American referee who oversaw the nine-judge panel at the pairs competition, accused the voters of predetermining their decision and the head of the French skating union subsequently confessed that his country's judge had succumbed to pressure in awarding the Russians higher numbers than she thought they deserved.
In the last two days, the latest cry for change within the sport's scoring system has been the loudest yet and the IOC unsuccessfully attempted to expedite a hearing on the decision scheduled for Monday.
But no inquiries seemed necessary Thursday.
Yagudin, the reigning European champion, was favored for the gold after an exceptional short program two nights earlier. Plushenko, sitting fourth, was expected to challenge his countryman, but needed to win the free skate and have Yagudin finish no higher than third to catch him.
Meanwhile Japan's Takeshi Honda, second after the long program was also in position to challenge, and American Timothy Goebel was a surprise contender after placing third in the short program. Goebel had never medaled at a world competition coming into Thursday.
But Yagudin didn't give anybody a chance by not taking any.
Skating to the soundtrack from "Man in the Iron Mask,'' the three-time World Champion was practically flawless in a program that did not need to be fantastic. And, while he did less than the other skaters, he did it better. He allowed a smile before starting his final steps and was crying off-ice before his numbers were even posted. All of his 6.0s came in presentation.
"It was pretty hard to skate last,'' said Yagudin. "I had to wait for 35 minutes in the cold. I knew how the others had skated.''
Plushenko led after an aggressive program yielded mostly 5.8s, but a missed triple axel early cost him the perfection he was going to need to catch Yagudin.
Goebel started strongly, pulling a boisterous crowd into his routine, but he failed to land a triple axel in the middle of his program and received disappointing marks for presentation, including two 5.4s and a 5.5.
"I feel great,'' said Goebel. "I skated as well as I can skate and I was just so happy to go out there and put it out under pressure.
American Todd Eldridge, competing in his third Olympics faltered Tuesday and was out of medal contention heading into last night's short program. He fell on his first jump, a quad toe loop and finished sixth, his second-best Olympic showing.
Savannah Morning News sports columnist Tim Guidera is part of a Morris News Services team covering the 2002 Winter Olympics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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