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Olympic skating preview: The men

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The men’s event begins on Tuesday in Vancouver with the short program and ends on Thursday with the free. The men’s competition may be quite a bit different than you’re used to this time around, if only because of the unusual number of veterans and heavy-hitters vying for gold. In Nagano, Salt Lake City and Turin we had 1 or 2 big shots who were clear favorites for gold and delivered in the end; this year we’ve got (surprise surprise) a Russian favorite for gold, a handful of men who could potentially challenge for gold, and at least 9 competitors that I wouldn’t be shocked to see on the podium.

Here’s what you need to know.

Evgeny Plushenko will be competing in his 3rd Olympic games after a 3-year hiatus following his victory in Turin. His comeback this season has been a resounding success with 1st place finishes in the 3 competitions he entered and some big scores from the judges. Plushenko’s biggest assets are his consistency, his experience, and let’s face it- his swagger. This guy isn’t the greatest skater who ever lived but you wouldn’t know it with the confidence that he brings to the ice with every performance. If something goes wrong with a jump on the takeoff he will correct the error in the air and miraculously pull off a perfect landing. No pops, no spin-outs, no two-foots, and he never misses a quad or triple axel. So why can’t I get excited about him? First of all his programs are heavily front-loaded; this means that his 3 largest jump elements occur immediately at the start of the program, leaving the last 3 or 4 minutes fairly boring. This is a common tactic that many skaters use in order to avoid difficult jumping passes later in the program when they’re tired, but this skating fan would hope to see something better in a gold medal skate. Plushenko has also been widely criticized for his lack of artistry, second-rate footwork sequences and lackluster choreography. It is pretty amazing to me that his component scores are as high as they are. Also keep in mind on Tuesday and Thursday that the international judges LOVE this guy. If he skates clean in Vancouver and doesn’t win gold it will be because judges came to their senses and finally award him lower component scores, but don’t hold your breath on this.

Brian Joubert of France, the 2007 world champion, can be likened to Plushenko in many ways. With poor choreography and transitions, Joubert depends exclusively on his jumps to carry him through. The problem is that while he has the ability to pull off some very large jumps (he will attempt 2 quads in his long program), his performances have been hot and cold over the past couple of seasons. His showings at the 2009 world championships and the European championships a few weeks ago were uninspired and paled in comparison to Plushenko. In order to medal he will need an error-free skate.

2009 world champion Evan Lysacek of the United States has been waiting for this week for 4 years. After an error-ridden short program put him out of medal contention in Turin, a phenomenal free skate brought him up to a 4th place finish. With solid showings at 2 grand prix events, a gold at the grand prix final and a silver at U.S. nationals, Evan is definitely podium material. His two most recent skates have not been completely perfect but he has managed to post extremely high numbers nonetheless. I believe that with a perfect skate he will challenge Plushenko for gold. He recently announced that he will not be performing a quad in his long program; he says that this is simply to prevent injury but I suspect that he isn’t landing it consistency in practice. I am confident that he will find another way to make up the points.

Patrick Chan of Canada is another possible medal contender for the men’s competition. While I don’t believe that he necessarily has the experience or the goods to challenge for gold, he definitely has the chops to put up big numbers and to put on a good show. A nagging injury has limited his season to only 2 competitions, which included a disastrous 6th place finish at Skate Canada and a much better showing with a win at Canadian nationals. Chan , like Lysacek, is capable of scoring large numbers without a quadruple jump in his arsenal.

Don’t count American Johnny Weir out for a spot on the podium. Johnny brings consistency and experience to the table that is second only to Plushenko. He’s also having a pretty good season; 2nd at the NHK Trophy, 3rd at the highly contested U.S. nationals and 3rd at the even more competitive grand prix final where he posted a personal best score. While Johnny isn’t a likely candidate for gold, don’t be shocked if other skaters crack under the pressure and Johnny’s experience and technique carry him to his first Olympic medal.

The one thing that 4-time Japanese national champion Daisuke Takahashi has going for him is what I believe to be the best designed, choreographed and structured free program in the competition. Entertaining, filled with big jumps and the best footwork you will see among any of the men, Takahashi has enormous potential to medal. He’s not having a great season though; he fell from first place all the way to 5th at the grand prix final with yet another error-filled free skate. If he can get his act together and string together 2 perfect programs, however, I believe that gold is within reach.

Nobunari Oda of Japan may also find himself in the medals mix. He had the best showing on the grand prix circuit of all the men with somewhat unexpected wins at Cup of China and Trophee Eric Bombard and concluded his season with a silver at the grand prix final. His ‘Charlie Chaplin’ free program has been charming judges all season and fans should watch for his beautiful landing technique with the deep knee bends on every jump.

The two-time world champion and 2006 Olympic silver medalist Stephane Lambiel is also on the comeback trail, having taken off the 2008-2009 season and returning for another shot at Olympic gold. Lambiel is likely one of the most balanced skaters in the competition, being one of the only men to land quadruple jumps consistently throughout his career while skating with impeccable style and artistry. According to early reports from his practice sessions in Vancouver however he is struggling with his edge jumps, especially the triple axel which he will need for a podium finish, even with 2 quads in his arsenal.

If you’d asked me 2 months ago if Jeremy Abbott was in the running for gold, I’d have said ‘not a chance.’ After his inspired performance at the U.S. nationals in January, however, I’m keeping my fingers crossed for him. He put up a staggering 266.66 combined score at nationals. To put things in perspective this is 7 points higher than Evgeny Plushenko’s gold medal performance at the recent European championships. If he can stay out of his head and put together 2 clean performances don’t be surprised to see him medal.

Related: Former Canadian skater Chad Conley gives his take on the men's field.