America's five-time figure skating champion could win his first Olympic gold medal Saturday simply by being himself. More likely, he will lose because someone else's best is a little better and a lot bolder.
Eldredge lacks the elegance of Russia's Ilia Kulik, the spring of Canada's Elvis Stojko, and the conviction to go for the gold by adding high-risk elements to a carefully polished program. He ranked third in the Olympic men's singles following Thursday's short program, and gave every indication he would lay up in the decisive free skate rather than lay everything on the line.
In a sport that prizes spectacle, Eldredge is a skater whose strongest suit is his steadiness. He understands his limitations, and is prudent about pushing the envelope of his potential. He is the Little Engine That Could, Provided Everything Breaks Just Right.
''I think everything I do is very well received,'' Eldredge said Thursday. ''I don't go out and everyone says, 'He's a great jumper.' I also don't go out and everyone says that I'm very artistic. They say both of those things in the same breath and together.''
Trouble is, they just don't say it too loud.
Eldredge is an acquired taste, a skater who specializes in spins in an age of ever-escalating jumps. He won a world championship in 1996, but for most of the last year, he has been told - even taunted - that he would need a quadruple jump to win in Nagano. The prevailing opinion was that he was like a golfer who was bound to get bypassed if he continued to play for pars.
Eldredge argues that he believes in balance, believes that 4 ï minutes of fine craftsmanship should mean more to the judges than a few seconds of flash. He has practiced a quadruple toe loop, and finally tried it (unsuccessfully) at the U.S. nationals last month, but it has always seemed his last resort, a grudging concession to changing standards. He says that becoming preoccupied with the jump in Philadelphia probably compromised the rest of his program. This is a mistake he is unlikely to repeat.
''If the quad was such a huge issue that you could go out and do one and not do the rest of the program, fine,'' Eldredge said Thursday. ''But it takes eight-tenths of a second or a second to do and there's four minutes and 20 seconds after that. I just don't think it's that big a deal, (though) it will be if the other guys do it and they do everything else great.''
This is a chance Eldredge has little choice but to take. The draw for position in Saturday's free skate placed him immediately behind Kulik, who leads the competition, but well before Stojko, whose explosive talent is in second place. Because of the draw, Eldredge will be forced to commit himself to a course of action before all of its consequences are made clear.
''My coach (Richard Callaghan) will watch Ilia,'' Eldredge said. ''Richard will watch and he'll tell me what to do. If he (Kulik) does a quad, it means I have to step it up in another area if I don't do it.''
Eldredge might change his mind in mid-stream, but his personality does not suggest much spontaneity. Probably, he's planning to play defense Saturday, protecting a bronze medal at all costs and banking on Kulik and - or Stojko to stumble.
The strategy could backfire if Russia's Alexei Yagudin, currently fourth in the competition, should land a quad and push Eldredge off the medals platform. The downside risk, however, is probably outweighed than the upside potential. The unique pressures of the Winter Games could prompt some of Eldredge's opponents to overreach their limitations and land on their rears.
Some guys go for the gold and go home with nothing. Todd Eldredge prefers to play the percentages.
Columnist Tim Sullivan is covering the XVIII Winter Olympic Games for the Enquirer.
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