Plushenko Leads After Men's Short Program

Russian figure skater Evgeni Plushenko is in good position to win a second consecutive Olympic gold medal. Plushenko is in the lead after the men's short program at the Vancouver Winter Games Tuesday night. Two others, including American Evan Lysacek, are close behind.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

The warm, soggy weather in western Canada has been a problem for outdoor events at the Olympics. But indoor events are living up to expectations.

Russian figure skater Evgeni Plushenko is in a good position to win a second consecutive Olympic gold medal. Plushenko leads after last night's men's short program at the Vancouver Winter Games. But two others, including American Evan Lysacek, are close behind.

NPR's Tom Goldman took in the pageantry of Vancouver's Pacific Coliseum, and he joins us now. Welcome, Tom.

TOM GOLDMAN: Thank you.

WERTHEIMER: So Plushenko - I take it he looked pretty good for a guy who just came out of retirement.

GOLDMAN: He did. He retired after winning the Olympic gold medal in 2006 and then he came back in the fall of last year. He's still only 27, and frankly he looks like a skater in his prime, which is saying a lot for a man who's already won Olympic gold and Olympic silver in 2002, three world championships, six European championships.

Last night, Linda, his jumps, as always, were huge. He was the only guy to land a quad cleanly - that's a four-revolution jump. His spins looked better than in the past. And he's always been a showman and he still is. He has this imperious demeanor.

After finishing his program, he withdrew an imaginary sword from an imaginary sheath. He raised it in the air, kissed the imaginary handle and then put it back in the imaginary sheath.

And one former Olympic medalist told me that when a guy with that much confidence walks into a rink, it sucks the air out of the building so other skaters can't breathe.

WERTHEIMER: So is it working for him? Were his competitors intimidated?

GOLDMAN: Well, after all of that that I said, not so much last night, because both Evan Lysacek of the U.S., as you mentioned, and Daisuke Takahashi of Japan skated brilliantly themselves. They're in second and third place, respectively, both just fractions of a point behind Plushenko in the scoring.

Now, one of the things that made it easier is the way the draw was last night, Plushenko skated very early - 10th out of 30 skaters. So most of the skaters didn't even have to see him at the arena. Thursday is a whole different animal. That's the free skate, the longer program where medals are won or lost and where the top skaters are all together in the final group. So Plushenko's presence will be unavoidable.

Last night, Lysacek said Plushenko has the power mentally of having a gold medal already and that's what everyone else wants. And Lysacek said it's going to take mighty fine skating to get that power away from him.

WERTHEIMER: Any other skaters from the U.S. contenders?

GOLDMAN: Not real strong contenders. Of course, everyone wants to know what Johnny Weir did or at least what he was wearing. It didn't appear he was wearing fur last night. You may have heard he's been having a running battle with anti-fur activists because of his choice of animal fur on his costumes.

Last night it was more of a black leather bodice-y thing with pink ties in the front and back. It looked...

WERTHEIMER: I think bustier is what we call that.

GOLDMAN: Bustier, sure, we'll go with that. He looked good as a skater too. And he landed four triple jumps in his program. He skated with great emotion, as he always does, a bit of camp too. And he said he had fun and he felt like he showed his heart. He's currently in sixth position.

It's unlikely he can win a gold from that position but there's an outside chance that he could get a medal, if a lot of guys ahead of him implode.

WERTHEIMER: Speaking of imploding, two-time U.S. national champion Jeremy Abbott apparently had a tough night. Do you know what happened?

GOLDMAN: No, I don't, and neither does Jeremy Abbott. It was painful to watch. He performed so well last month at the nationals, which he won. And he talked about how he had quieted the self doubt that had plagued him in the past.

Last night, it looks like the little demons returned. As he put it, two jumps of his just disintegrated. They were planned triple jumps and they didn't even get close. He's now in 15th position - no hope for a medal. He did say he wasn't going to give up and leave the games on that short program experience though. So watch for a better performance from him on Thursday.

WERTHEIMER: Thanks very much, Tom.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome.

WERTHEIMER: NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman. He's at the Vancouver Winter Olympics.

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