It wasn't a quad that made the difference last Thursday night when Evan Lysacek, the likable 24-year-old from Naperville, Ill., beat Evgeni Plushenko, the churlish 27-year-old defending Olympic champion from Russia, for the men's figure skating gold medal. It was a lowly double loop.
That simple fact was lost in the hue and cry following Lysacek's win, an outcome that had Mother Russia up in arms, from Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on down. "Your silver is worth gold," Putin telegrammed Plushenko after the competition. "[You] performed the most accomplished program on the Vancouver ice."
Plushenko was less tactful. "I am not prepared to skate well and lose," he said following a somewhat leaden free skate performance that, after his quad-triple opening, slowly ran out of gas. "This is men's figure skating, not ice dancing. I was positive that I won."
The ice dancing crack was a shot at Lysacek's failure to attempt a quad in either the short or free program, making him the first Olympic champion not to complete such a jump since Aleksei Urmanov of Russia in 1994. Perhaps if Plushenko had landed one more jump at the start of his free program, the judges would have seen the competition as he and Putin did. Plushenko had planned to open with the same monstrous three-jump combination he had used in 2006 in Turin: quadruple toe loop, triple toe loop, double loop. But after landing the first two, he left out the third jump of the sequence. The base point value of the omitted double loop was 1.5 points. Lysacek beat Plushenko by 1.31.
Numbers. It's a shame that such a difficult, beautiful sport should be reduced to numbers, but that's the way it is under the new scoring system. Lysacek and his coach, Frank Carroll, understood that; Plushenko and his coach, Alexei Mishin, didn't.
"Anyone arguing with those judges' scores, I don't think understands the system," said Lysacek, the U.S.'s sixth men's Olympic champion and the first since Brian Boitano in 1988. "It's all about accumulating points. No element is more important than another element. If it were a jumping contest, there wouldn't be music or costumes. I've worked on the quad for several years, and I know how many hours and how much energy it takes. But that pales in comparison to the time it takes to get the spins perfect and the transitions down and to have the stamina to keep accumulating points through four minutes, 40 seconds of skating."
In nearly every facet of the free skate, Lysacek bettered Plushenko, who came out of a three-year retirement this season in search of a third Olympic medal. Lysacek's spins, footwork, speed, choreography and the overall quality of his eight triple jumps were superior. "He was so mentally tough," Boitano said of Lysacek. "He didn't miss anything."
It was a strategy mapped out by Carroll, the respected 71-year-old coach who had always seen his skaters—including five-time world champion Michelle Kwan—come up just short of Olympic gold. Lysacek, fourth in Turin in 2006, started thinking about that streak after finishing second in the short program, just .55 behind the favored Plushenko. "That isn't helpful," he said. "I'm not a skater who needs to get all fired up. It ruins my technique. Calm is always the best approach for me, and Frank kept me sane."
On the ice Lysacek may not have performed a quad, the biggest trick in men's skating, but he was pure in every other aspect of the sport. And it was he, not the flagging Plushenko, who brought the crowd to its feet at the end. "The goal this year wasn't gold," Lysacek said the next morning, admiring his medal. "It was about having the performance of a lifetime in the Olympic Games. I guess this gold medal is a symbol of that. But it wasn't the goal."