The quad at heart of skating 'catfight'

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- In the old days, an Olympic showdown like this between an American and a Russian would have gotten our military to at least DEFCON 3 and Al Michaels to probably DEFCON 1.

Wearing the dark sequins, you have the imposing Russian, Evgeni Plushenko, winner of the silver medal in the 2002 Olympics, the gold medal in 2006 and the men's figure skating short program Tuesday night. He is attempting to become the first man to win consecutive golds in this event since Dick Button and extend Russia's streak to five Olympics.

In the light rhinestones, you have America's Evan Lysacek, who made certain to point out after finishing second in the short program that he is the reigning world champ. He is attempting to become the first American to win a gold medal since 1988, when Brian Boitano beat Brian Orser in the Battle of the Brians.

Plushenko, Lysacek and Japan's Daisuke Takahashi are separated by less than a point heading into Thursday night's deciding free program, but Plushenko and Takahashi have one significant advantage over the American. They have a quad jump in their routine, but Lysacek said the jump probably isn't in the cards for him.

"I work a lot on every aspect of my skating." Lysacek said, rationalizing his choice to leave out the quad. "I guess if you asked a speedskater whether one stroke is more important than any other, they would say no, and I feel that way about my program. That each stroke I take, each jump is of equal importance. Sometimes it's easiest for us to forget about the simpler moves and take them for granted, and I know that's where I've run into problems this season.

"So I won't be taking any step in my free program for granted, and I'll be trying to maximize my points."

Of course, Lysacek's view probably would be different if he felt capable of landing the quad.

"I used to really enjoy training the quad, and I looked forward to it every day," he said. "I thought it was important for me to always try it in competition. A lot of times I fell, but sometimes I did land it. But then I broke my foot, and it became less fun and more scary to do it. I still have pain from doing it when I started doing it more before nationals and before this competition. I felt the risk of injury was there.

"Leading up to the world championships last year was a tough time for me, wondering whether I would be able to make it through the event with a stress fracture or not. And I really did not want my Olympic experience to be like that, and that's why I should lay off that pressure on the left foot and try to make it through these Olympics successfully."

All that sounds good, but Plushenko essentially says real men jump quads. Or, at least, champions do.

"The future of figure skating is in the quad jumps," Plushenko said. "One can discuss whether it's good to focus on other things, but to do so is to go backwards in time.

"In the '80s, everybody was jumping the doubles, you know? Then the skaters started jumping triples. Then the triple axel. Then the quadruple. In the future, I think we need to make quad salchow, quad flip, quad lutz. Of course, we need transition, we need speed, we need steps. But I don't know. In all sports, they have new [improvements]. I think we stopped."

When Takahashi said the quad is necessary for him personally and for the future of skating, Plushenko nodded to him and said, "Thank you."

Then again, the quad is an advantage only if a skater lands it.

Johnny Weir is America's only other medal hope, although that hope is pretty slim. He's in sixth place, eight points behind the top three, and he doesn't have a quad, either. If one of the top three falls, though, he could be right in there for a bronze. He drew the next-to-last slot in the final group (right before Plushenko), which might help him slightly.

"When I came in here, I knew a gold medal was pretty far-fetched for me," Weir said. "Not only through the public's eyes, just in people's eyes in general. I haven't been a contender for a couple years now. I was kind of left out of the 10 skaters people thought were in contention for a gold medal, and I have no problem with that. I've accepted it. I understand it.

"It's going to be a catfight in the long program, and I'm happy to be a part of it."

Catfight? That's DEFCON 12, isn't it?

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