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VANCOUVER, British Columbia – If gold medals were handed out for winning mind games, Evgeni Plushenko would already be headed to the Vancouver airport, ready to jump on a flight to Russia with another Olympic title stashed safely in his baggage.
After surging into the lead after the short program in the men's figure-skating competition, Plushenko proceeded to turn up the heat on American rival Evan Lysacek with a series of barbed comments that will further fuel a heated showdown set for Thursday night.
Plushenko gleefully poked fun at Lysacek's refusal to incorporate the quad jump – figure skating's toughest and most exciting maneuver – into his program. Lysacek suffered a stress fracture in his foot attempting the move last year and will not try it in his long program.
"I believe the future of figure skating lies in the quad jumps," said Plushenko, with the hint of a sneer dancing across his face. "We can discuss a lot whether it is good or not or whether it is good to focus on other things, but by doing so we are going backward in time."
It's not as if any Olympic battle between the U.S. and Russia needs any extra electricity, but Plushenko appeared determined to pick open some psychological wounds on Lysacek before the figure-skating version of a Cold War recommences on the ice at the Pacific Coliseum.
Their news conference shaped up as a verbal boxing match, which quickly turned into a one-sided smackdown reminiscent of Ivan Drago vs. Rocky Balboa in "Rocky IV" – without the fighting back.
Lysacek's night had gone perfectly to that point. Skating in the final group, he produced one of the finest performances of his career, arguably even better than the one that won him gold at the 2009 world championships.
His 90.30 score puts him in second place at the midway point, just behind the indomitable Plushenko's 90.85 and well in contention to score the first American men's gold since Brian Boitano in Calgary in 1988.
However, it remains to be seen whether his low-risk policy of ditching the quad, a move he has performed successfully in the past, will come back to haunt him.
"For me, I have spent a lot of time working on every aspect of my routine," said Lysacek. "If you ask a speedskater if one stroke is more important than another, they wouldn't say that it was. It is easy to take the simpler moves for granted, but I am not going to do that and I will maximize the points and importance of them."
By now, though, Plushenko was starting to warm to his theme and began to play to his audience like a musical conductor. The Russian was quick to pour scorn on Lysacek's explanation, laughing and joking with reporters and scoring an undeniable psychological lift before eventually giggling to himself as he exited stage right.
"Of course we need transition and spins and steps, harder and harder," he said. "But I don't know, I was making triples in 1994. I know in speedskating they have timing [world records], it gets better. Biathlon, they have new timing. I think we stopped. Some people are going to say it is wrong. But that's my point."
American Johnny Weir will provide another dose of shock value with his outrageous and extravagant performance in the long program, but he sits in sixth place and seems well out of contention.
Lysacek, though, has a real chance, at least statistically speaking. However, he looked like a lost little boy once Plushenko got his claws out. The Los Angeles-based 25-year-old needs a confidence pick-me-up before Thursday.
Often too much is made of mind games and psychology, but Plushenko enjoys such a standing in the sport that his personality has the ability to overwhelm and crush prospective challengers.
Unless Lysacek steels himself like never before and comes up with the display of a lifetime on Thursday night, he could find himself swatted aside like so many hopefuls before him.