- Jim Caple, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- I know there are people who don't consider figure skating a real sport, what with the sequins, rhinestones, glitter, judges, incomprehensible scoring system, stuffed animals, and did I mention the sequins? But where else can you see this wild a range of athleticism, emotion, theater, artistry and just plain entertainment?
Consider Tuesday's men's short program, where in addition to guys leaping and spinning an impossible four revolutions in the air and still landing cleanly on a sheet of ice, you had athletes blowing kisses to the fans, punching their fists in exultation, choking back tears and skating to Beethoven, The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix while dressed in costumes ranging from a skeleton body suit to a gondolier's outfit to a pink corset to -- I kid you not -- blue overalls.
Yes! Overalls! Samuel Contesti, representing Italy -- or the Clampett family -- set what is believed to be an Olympic record for references by skating to Whammer Jammer harmonica music while wearing blue overalls. "I thought it was very fashion forward and a very big risk," Johnny Weir said. "Even riskier than man-cleavage and a pink ruffle.''
Which, of course, is what Johnny wore.
Johnny's longtime rival Evan Lysacek likes to project a more traditional, masculine image, but he wore a feathery black Vera Wang design and apparently had his hair styled by a highway asphalt crew. The reigning world champ skated magnificently, though, so much so he was fist-punching the air in celebration while he still had a couple moves to perform in a routine that received a mark of 90.30. He heads into Thursday's deciding free skate in second place, just .55 points behind 2006 gold medalist Evgeni Plushenko. Japan's Daisuke Takahashi is third at 90.25, followed by a small pack of skaters between 78 and 85 points.
"Evgeni has one major advantage over everyone," Lysacek said. "He has power mentally because he has what we all want. I think it's going to take some mighty fine skating to take that away from him."
Plushenko actually has a bigger advantage -- unlike Lysacek, he can land a beautiful quadruple jump, and he did so Tuesday. He said his gold medal gives him no further advantage. Far from it. "I thought that with each Olympic competition, it would become easier to compete," said Plushenko, who won silver at Salt Lake in 2002. "But apparently, it's getting harder. I get nervous more now."
Weir had a chance to win the silver behind Plushenko in 2006, but he crashed and burned in Torino when he said he felt "black inside." His mood ring on Tuesday was as bright as the pink on his costume, though. "I really showed my heart," he said. "I smiled. I can't remember the last time I smiled like that. Tonight was really everything that I hoped it would be."
Weir said he cured his preskate nervousness by cleaning the room in the athletes' village he shares with ice dancer Tanith Belbin -- "Some people eat, some people drink, some people smoke ... I Pledge" -- and followed that up with an almost Pledge-worthy clean program. He made one mistake when he performed his triple flip on the wrong blade edge and it cost him. He received a score of 82.10 that put him in sixth place and left his many fans booing the judges. "As long as it's pretty, I don't really care," Weir said of the score. "And as long as I don't land on my ass."
Weir's medal hopes are pretty slim unless one of the top three leaders collapses in the free program, but hey, you never know what will happen when the skater goes out there in the middle of an Olympic rink and feels the eyes of the world on him. "You can feel very lonely," Weir said. "Very alone, very pressure-filled."
Reigning two-time U.S. national champion Jeremy Abbott knows all about that loneliness. He skated to The Beatles' "A Day in The Life" only to have all he has worked toward slip away in a heartbreaking night in the life. He missed his triple axel and triple lutz so badly, he's in 15th place, so far back he's behind the guy in the overalls.
"This has been my dream since I was 4, and never in my wildest dreams did I think that would happen," a teary-eyed Abbott said. "I don't know where it went wrong, but something happened and the next two jumping passes just disintegrated. ... I'm going to have to do a lot of digging in the next two days because I'm not going to give up. I'm not going to leave it here. I'm not going to go out on that experience. But the way I'm feeling now, I just want to go back and sleep for a week."
Abbott looked as stunned and in as much pain as if he had just been struck in the head with a frying pan when he worked his way upstream through the almost endless conga line of interrogation that is the mixed zone, where skaters meet with reporters. Please describe the worst night of your life! And then right behind him was the absolutely thrilled Lysacek.
That's the beauty of figure skating; they specifically refer to that area where skaters learn their scores as the "kiss and cry zone," where amazing athletes weep with joy and despair, where they wear every possible emotion on their sleeves.
Along, of course, with sequins and rhinestones.
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached here. His Web site is at jimcaple.net.
2hBonnie D. Ford