Not since 1988 and the thrilling Battle of the Brians, in which Boitano of the U.S. edged Orser of Canada for the gold medal in Calgary, have two male figure skaters been so far ahead of the field and so evenly matched in an Olympic year. Between them, 19-year-old Evgeni Plushenko and 21-year-old Alexei Yagudin have dominated their sport of late, continually racheting up the difficulty of their jumps while winning the last four world championships and the last five European titles.
The two former training partners from Russia are extending the frontiers of male figure skating as no one has done since Dick Button began introducing triples some 50 years ago. Both are planning to do a quadruple toe loop-triple toe loop-triple loop combination at the Olympics, a dizzying aerial array never before landed in competition. Plushenko, the reigning world champ, has further hinted that at the Games he hopes to become the first skater to land a quad Lutz. Yagudin hopes to match that feat with a combo of a quad toe loop, a half-loop and a quad Salchow.
In addition to his jumps, Plushenko—a mop-haired, hawk-nosed, scarecrow-limber Rod Stewart on skates—is the only man who does a Biellmann spin, in which he lifts his free leg behind his back and holds it over his head while spinning (left). His mother, Tatiana, wanted him to learn the move to improve his skating fortunes, so every night in the kitchen of their Volgograd home she stood behind him and pulled his legs up into the Biellmann position, first the left one, then the right. He still frowns at the memory: "I told her, 'I'm small boy. It's so much pain. I don't need this.' But we work every day and stretch hard. Now I say, 'Thank you, Mommy.' "
Yagudin, who trains in the U.S. under dance-minded Russian coach Tatiana Tarasova, says that Plushenko "doesn't feel the music" and lacks artistry. Alexei Mishin, who used to coach both men—Yagudin left him in 1998, unhappy that Mishin was giving too much of his attention to Plushenko—claims that Plushenko "is cleaner and more polished." It will come down to two performances in Salt Lake City and perhaps the mind-set of a single judge. "He is a good guy, and he is a good skater. Amazing skater," says Plushenko of his rival. "But there's a lot of tension between us. He wants first. I want first."