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Plushenko heads wide-open field

The must-see event of these Olympics in figure skating, for a change, is the men, which begins Tuesday night. The field is wide open: competing are four world champions, seven world medalists, the defending Olympic champion. There is also a potential judging brouhaha that is a lit fuse waiting to explode. Tonya and Nancy, it's not, but for these days on the snore-me figure skating beat, it's a pretty rich brew. I see ten skaters who have a reasonable shot at a medal, and four men who could possibly win. Let's break them down by categories.

Tomas Verner, Czech Republic --The 23-year-old was European champion in 2008 and finished 4th last season at the World Championships in L.A. But he's been off form this year, finishing 10th in the most recent Europeans and losing the Czech national title to 19-year-old Michal Brezina. He is the longest of longshots for bronze.

Daisuke Takahashi, Japan --Takahashi, also 23, finished second in the Worlds as recently as 2007, but knee surgery cost him most of the 2008-09 season. He has recently showed sign of returning to his best form, however, winning the highly competitive Japanese national championship and leading the Grand Prix final after the short program, before falling to fifth.

Nobunari Oda, Japan -- Oda finished second in the Grand Prix final this season after winning two Grand Prix events in the fall. Just 22, he could surprise. He has conquering in his blood, being a direct descendent of 16th century Japanese warlord Oda Nobunaga.

• Johnny Weir, U.S. -- Weir, 25, is the hands-down champion of commanding media attention. He has been making flamboyant statements all season, perhaps emboldened after allowing a filmmaker (Be Good, Johnny Weir) to document him and a boyfriend vamping it up in a bubble bath. Since coming to Vancouver, he's called for one respected American judge, Joe Inman, to be permanently banned from judging, and described decorating the suite he's sharing in the athlete village with ice dancer Tanith Belbin with scented candles and pink bathmats. He's a cutey, all right. But champion of an actual skating competition? Never mind the Olympics? I'm sorry. Weir is in shape, and he did finish 3rd in the world as recently as 2008. But he doesn't have a fighter's personality, which, believe it or not, this sport requires. He could win bronze, though, if he actually lands all the jumps in both his programs, something he hasn't done in years.

• Brian Joubert, France -- A lot of people think that Joubert, 25, is a gold medal contender, because he can land a quad-triple combination, and has one planned in both his short and his long program. If he lands them, that's a lot of points. But there is nothing else to his skating, and frankly, if the judges are going to put someone on top of the podium for his quad-triples, they'll put Russia's Evgeni Plushenko, who does everything else better than Joubert. Yes, Plushenko could implode. But it is far, far more likely that Joubert will.

• Jeremy Abbott, U.S. -- It would be nice to be able to write that the two-time U.S. champion is a gold medal contender, especially since he won the prestigious Grand Prix final in 2009. But he has never finished higher than 11th in two appearances at the World Championships, and he has just not proved himself to the international judges who will make up most of the panel. Abbott can be great: he was at the U.S. Nationals. But he looks tight here, and is soft-selling his chances by saying he's not concerned with placement. He likes not being in the spotlight, and there is no brighter spotlight than that which shines on the Olympic champion. He would be thrilled with bronze.

• Evgeni Plushenko, Russia -- The defending Olympic champion, Plushenko, 27, is the favorite on the basis of his kick-butt win at Europeans, when he landed two quad-triple combinations with ease and absolutely hammered the field. Since then, however, an American judge who isn't here, Inman, has brought to light Plushenko's dirty little secret: his transitional moves between his jumps are virtually non-existent and there is a disconnect between him and his music much of the time. His spins are average, at best; his footwork is strong but not great. So he needs those jumps. But he has been remarkably consistent landing them over the course of his great career-three world titles and six European championships in addition to a gold medal in Torino and a silver in Salt Lake City. The man is clutch.

• Stephane Lambiel, Switzerland -- I love watching Lambiel. The 24-year-old was world champion in 2005-06 and the silver medalist in Torino. He finished second to Plushenko in Europeans this year. He has a quad-triple combination, is the best spinner in the world, and audiences love his theatrical style. He's (itals) this (end itals) close. If he can put it all together, he could win. It's just that he so seldom does, anymore.

• Patrick Chan, Canada -- He will be the crowd favorite, and judges have been known to be swayed. Second at the Worlds in 2009, the 19-year-old Chan has fantastic footwork and transitions, if the judges are paying attention to those things. He's fast on the ice, clean, and artistic. But he doesn't have a quad. That's a problem. What he does have is pressure. A ton of it. No Canadian man has ever won Olympic gold in figure skating, and better skaters than Chan (Brian Orser, Kurt Browning), have tried.

• Evan Lysacek, U.S. -- The defending world champion, Lysacek, 24, has had an up-and-down year. He did win the Grand Prix final (Plushenko wasn't there), but then was soundly beaten by Abbott while finishing second at the U.S. championships. After flirting all season with whether to try to land a quad, he has scrapped the idea and decided to put everything he has into his program, landing just triples. It seems to have freed him up inside, and he's been practicing very, very well here in Vancouver. "I'm so happy skating here," he said this morning after a clean run through in his short. "I'm having fun. My elements feel secure. The ice feels good. I like my music. Everything's great." He has the appearance of an athlete at the top of his game and ready to get started.

• Gold -- Evgeni Plushenko• Silver -- Evan Lysacek• Bronze -- Patrick Chan

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