Commentary

Lysacek wins gold, but debate rages on

Updated: February 19, 2010, 7:55 AM ET
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- During the medal ceremony for men's figure skating, the public-address announcer introduced Daisuke Takahashi, who took his position on the lowest level of the podium for the bronze medal. Then the announcer introduced Russian silver medalist Evgeni Plushenko, who jokingly stepped onto the podium's uppermost level, where American Evan Lysacek was to receive his gold medal, before stepping to his rightful position.

[+] EnlargeEvan Lysacek
Cameron Spencer/Getty ImagesEvan Lysacek finished with a career-best score of 257.67 on Thursday night, 1.31 ahead of Russian Evgeni Plushenko.

Or maybe it wasn't such a joke.

"I was positive I had won," said Plushenko, the 2006 gold medalist. "But I suppose Evan needs a gold medal more than I do because I already have one."

That's the spirit, Evgeni. Them's the fightin' words we remember from the old days of the Cold War, when an Olympic showdown between Americans and Soviets was cause for an arms buildup and a trade embargo, or at least a Tom Clancy novel and a trademark phrase from Al Michaels.

Lysacek did not perform the celebrated quad Thursday night, but he pulled off the much more rewarding leapfrog over Plushenko in the men's final with a total score of 257.67 to Plushenko's 256.36. He became the first American male Olympic figure skating champion since Brian Boitano won at the 1988 Calgary Games, and the first men's gold medalist since then who was not born in the former Soviet Union.

"Do you believe in sequins?! Yes!"

Lysacek entered the free program in second place, trailing Plushenko by .55 points. The quad is the most difficult move in men's figure skating (apart from stepping onto the ice in one of Johnny Weir's costumes), but unlike Plushenko, Lysacek chose not to attempt it. Instead, he focused on his other leaps and elements -- the spins, steps, triple jumps, etc. -- and performed almost all of them flawlessly.

When he finished his program, he spun with such force that his hair flipped up in back, which is no small accomplishment given the way he shellacs it to his scalp. He punched his fists in triumph while still spinning and all but waved a big foam finger in the air when he finished.

"I can't help it," he said. "I just was excited. I was trying to keep my cool, but after each jump, I got excited. It was just a special moment for me."

And when Lysacek finally received his gold medal and stood atop the podium, he said he had so many thoughts running through his mind that he could have stood there for an hour. Which apparently was one of the rarer moments when his single-minded focus slipped.

"My thought process here was basically, 'Mind your own business,'" Lysacek said. "I wrote it on a little card when I got here and taped it up in my room: 'Mind your own business.' Worry about what I have to do and what my job is, and the truth of the matter is that mission was accomplished here."

Mission accomplished, perhaps, but the war over the importance of the quad goes on. Plushenko wasn't willing to concede defeat, all but inviting Lysacek over to a high-jump pit.

"I think we need to change the judging system because quad is quad," Plushenko said. "If [the] Olympic champion doesn't know how to jump a quad, it isn't men's figure skating, it's men's ice dancing."

Over to you, Evan.

"If it were a jumping competition, they would give you 10 seconds to run and do your best jump," Lysacek said. "But it's a four-minute, 40-second program, and it's about sustaining that level of skating and excitement from start to finish. And that's what I've been working on every day."

So was Lysacek's victory a statement that the quad isn't the be-all, end-all in figure skating? Or merely a case of him being better than Plushenko on the biggest night of his career?

"Plushenko was brilliant in the jumping and did some brilliant, very difficult things," said Lysacek's coach, Frank Carroll. "But if you think of his skating, it was up, very brilliant, and then down, and then very brilliant, and down. It was going in waves, while Evan just sort of stayed in a straight line and kept going at a certain level from the start to the finish. So I think evaluating the downs and the ups is what was difficult for the judges."

"The quad does separate the two classes," said Jeremy Abbott, who climbed from 15th to ninth. "There's sort of a group that can do the quad and a group that is artistic and they kind of need to come together. You need to do the quad and you need to have skating skills. You need to spin and do everything else. As far as the quad goes, I think it's kind of irrelevant if the quad is all you can do. The future of the sport are the people who have the full package."

And if by the full package, you mean everything but the quad, Lysacek was certainly that Thursday.

"Evan is a good combination of athleticism and artistry," said longtime rival Johnny Weir, who finished sixth. "That's an amazing accomplishment, and I'm very proud of him. I can't say anything bad like everybody wants me to -- I can feel it coming from you, wafting. Evan has always worked hard his whole career and he continues to. Even yesterday, he did a full run-through of his whole program when everyone else was kind of walking through the motions, and that's something I really respect about him as an athlete. But when you work hard, you can win big."

So after 22 years, the gold medal is back on American soil, though Congress may need to raise taxes for a rhinestone buildup because Plushenko said he just might return in four years (when he will be 31) to take it back.

"My basic position is that movement was always go forward, never stop, never go back," Plushenko said. "As I said, I knew I would accept any result whatever the outcome. But after this defeat, I'm not going to put my hands down and stop. And I think people need to do lots of quads."

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached here. His Web site is at jimcaple.net.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com