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Plushenko leads deep field in men's figure skating

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Evgeni Plushenko knows figure skaters score no points for subtlety.

So he strode onto the ice for his third Olympics on Tuesday wearing a rhinestone-studded black jumpsuit with fake plunging neckline — and wearing black gloves, of course. He wore his customary mullet hairdo. He jumped and jumped, practically out of the Pacific Coliseum. And instead of bowing to the audience, he pulled an invisible sword from an invisible scabbard, kissed it and slid it back in.

It was a gesture of confidence, and why not?

Plushenko looks as good as ever. Maybe better.

Skating 10th, his score of 90.85 points held up through the night to give him the lead after the short program. He's the favorite, but he's up against one of the deepest fields in men's skating history.

The sublime Stephane Lambiel, powerful Brian Joubert, lithe Patrick Chan, dynamic Nobunari Oda, clever Daisuke Takahashi, consistent Evan Lysacek, blossoming Jeremy Abbott, charismatic Johnny Weir — all came to the Vancouver Games with something to offer. But none may have enough to unseat Plushenko, the czar, still No. 1 despite creaky knees and a three-year retirement.

He's on a diet, too. He ate only one banana Tuesday.

Russia's Plushenko is trying to become first repeat Olympic champion since Dick Button in 1948 and 1952.

Even at 27, his jumps are better than those of his competitors. He opened with a quadruple toe loop-triple toe loop combination. Followed by a triple axel, then a triple lutz. There will be more in his long program Thursday. When it comes to variety and altitude, he is the LeBron James of his sport.

His footwork was the usual Plushenko illusion: Lots of arm waving and campy facial expressions but not so much going on underneath. His spins were labored.

But the jumps swept the fans off their feet. And had the judges giving him a big fat 51.10 for his technical execution score.

Plushenko said he was tense but hid his feelings.

"I'm very pleased with my jumps," he said. "I was able to keep my nerves under control. When I landed the combination the audience erupted with applause and that really pushed me.

"In the warmup I didn't do the quad on two attempts and I did a mistake on the first attempt of the axel that made me nervous. I didn't know where my body was going."

But when it was time to take the stage, Plushenko rose to the occasion, as he did in 2006.

"There is a lot of pressure, not only from the Russian side," he said. "Everybody is saying, 'You must, you must.'"

And he did. What was surprising was the lack of execution by his opponents. Only Lysacek, who was in second place after an aggressive skate in his feathered costume, and Takahashi, in third, avoided mistakes. Less than a point separated the top three.

But Lambiel faltered on two jumps. Chan, Canada's hope for gold, was seventh after stepping out of his axel and losing a point for going over the time limit. Joubert and Abbott bombed. Weir flubbed his triple flip, as he always does, and was in sixth.

However, Weir's program, performed in a costume with a pink tassel and corset, served as a worthy contrast to that of Plushenko. Weir is the type of skater Plushenko left behind with his innovative athleticism.

Weir was content, though, by the crowd's enthusiastic reaction.

"I had so much fun; I want people to feel they are on the ice with me," said Weir, who is rooming with ice dancer Tanith Belbin in the athletes village. They've put up pictures of Audrey Hepburn and Lady Gaga on the wall. And to calm his pre-skate jitters Monday night, Weir dusted — or as he puts it — 'Pleged' the room thoroughly. "I knew a medal was pretty far-fetched. But it's going to be a cat fight in the long. If I get tired maybe I'll do a back flip."

It's Plushenko's to lose. One of the reasons he came back was to rescue Russian skating, which has slipped in recent years. A Russian pair failed to win Olympic gold Monday for the first time since 1960 (and with the exception of 2002, when a Canadian pair got a second gold to calm a judging controversy).

He is back and he will be difficult to beat.

As for the swordplay, he copied the bravado from a friend.

"It was a planned improvisation," he said. "Alexander Radulov Russian hockey player does it when he scores a goal. I decided to do the same."

Touche, Evgeni. Let's see what he unleashes Thursday.

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