From a distance the White Ring, Nagano's skating venue, looks silver and plump and liquid, like a water droplet beading up on the broad, flat landscape. It's an apt image for figure skating, a sport of sweat, meltdowns and tears. Last Saturday night all these were in evidence in a men's competition that in the end will be remembered as the flight to stardom of a 20-year-old Russian bumblebee named Ilia Kulik.
The meltdown? Well, that was provided by five-time U.S. champion Todd Eldredge, 26, who deserved a better fate. After winning the U.S. nationals last month with a tepid performance, he rechoreographed his long program and redid his short program. "I watched tapes of my previous performances and wasn't real happy about the feeling I was getting out of them," Eldredge said shortly after arriving in Nagano. "I'm trying to get a little more emotion into the choreography."
It was a gamble to rework his programs so close to the Olympics, but the improvement was apparent in the practices leading up to the competition. Then, in one of the best nights of skating in memory, Eldredge finished third behind Kulik and Canada's Elvis Stojko. The judges were clearly divided, thoughfour had Kulik first, three preferred Eldredge and two voted for Stojko. Any of three skaters would take the gold by winning the long program on Saturday night.
But after Kulik was awarded a string of seven 5.9s in the presentation mark for his magnificent long program, Eldredge, who didn't have a quadruple jump in his program, must have known he would be skating for second place. Still, a clean performance would virtually assure him a medal. It wasn't to be. While Tara Lipinski, his training partner back in Detroit, sat in the stands watching with an expression of escalating nausea, Eldredge doubled the back end of both his triple-triple combinations, singled a triple jump and then fell while trying to salvage the performance by turning a planned double Axel into a triple.
Skewering the bronze was France's ponytailed Philippe Candeloro, an over-the-top original who charmed the audience with his spot-on portrayal of d'Artagnan. Candeloro, who turned 26 three days after the long program, landed seven triple jumps (two more than Eldredge) while fencing his way across the ice and twirling his mustache with insouciance. It was a Gallic tour de force that vaulted him past the shell-shocked Eldredge and Russia's Alexei Yagudin, who also hit the ice hard on Saturday. The bronze was Candeloro's secondhe got the same medal in Lillehammerand gives new life to a career that for the past two years has been plagued by injuries. "Not many people believed I could get on the podium today," he said, sounding as if he was still in character. "So it's a good revenge for me."
This one had to have been his most frustrating. Stojko, a three-time world champion, carried the hopes of a nation that has produced eight of the last 11 world champions, yet is 0-forever in men's Olympic titles. "The last few weeks people at home were saying, 'Bring it home for us, we're counting on you,'" said Stojko. "I felt a lot of pressure."
Dealing with pressure is one of the 25-year-old Stojko's strengths. "What's a little more pressure?" he said. "Right on the edge is where all the best performances happen."
Go get 'em, tiger. There was just one problem with that defiant attitude: Stojko didn't bring that big weapon to Nagano. He pulled his groin during the Canadian championships last month, and the injurywhich was kept secrethadn't healed. All week long Stojko skated through his Nagano practices without trying any quad-triple combos, which for onlookers was like attending a sumo match to watch Akebono pour tea. "We tried to push our way through the injury," says Leigh. "It was work, recover, work, recover. We took a lot of days off."
Issue date: February 23, 1998
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