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.
Or was that a penguin-giraffe hybrid he was dressed as while skating his long program to Rhapsody in Blue? It was hard to tell. Kulik had performed his short program last Thursday in what appeared to be either a wood fairy or moth costume, although he had later told puzzled reporters that he had been portraying a man caught in the net of life. Not that anybody really gave a flying camel what Kulik was wearing once he started to skate. Kulik is what teenage girls call a hottie, and while his gold medal smile was melting hearts across 14 time zones, it was his combination of athleticism and artistry that made Olympic judges weak in the knees. Kulik put together the most dominant exhibition of men's skating in an Olympics since Brian Boitano won in 1988.
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, though—four 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 pony-tailed 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 second—he got the same medal in Lillehammer—and 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."
The sweat and tears? Those came courtesy of Stojko, the latest Canadian champion to fall prey to the Lone Ranger jinx. "They're going to start calling me Hi-Ho Silver," said Doug Leigh, Stojko's coach, after watching his unorthodox pupil settle for the silver medal at his second straight Olympics. What is more, Leigh was also Brian Orser's coach in 1984 and '88, which means he has a run of four silver medalists in the last five Olympics.
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 O-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."
Stojko has always had the verbal swagger of a man who knows he's got the most lethal weapon in the men's arsenal: the quadruple toe-triple toe combination, a jump that only he has landed in competition. "They say skaters should be classical," Stojko says, his lips curled in disdain. "Long, thin legs. Six feet tall. I'm not like that. I'm a powerful skater, a masculine skater. I don't skate feminine. I don't have a feminine side."