OLYMPICS, WINTER OLYMPICS 2002, OLYMPIC GAMES, SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH, MEN'S FIGURE SKATING, FIGURE SKATING, TODD ELDREDGE, TIM GOEBEL, YAGUDIN, PLUSHENKO

Todd Eldredge has had, by any reasonable standard, an estimable career. At 30, the grand old man of figure-skating recently won his sixth U.S. national championship (the same total as Michelle Kwan, though over a much longer span) and has compiled an impressive world championships record of one gold, three silvers and two bronzes. But despite that resume, Eldredge gets no respect-he's almost never mentioned in the same breath with the two Russian Olympic favorites, Evgeny Plushenko and Alexei Yagudin.

Perhaps it is Todd's slightly bland, nice-guy persona, perhaps his middle-of-the-road taste that has too often had him skating to uninspiring movie themes, or perhaps his lack of macho; he's the only top men's skater at this Olympics unlikely to try a quadruple jump when competition starts tonight. All this helps explain why this week the son of a Cape Cod fisherman was still talking about the upset win of his hometown New England Patriots in the Super Bowl. "The Rams were a 14-point favorite going into the Super Bowl and the Patriots won it," he said, smiling at the happy memory. "You can never count out anybody."

Indeed the entire American men's team seems to believe each and every one of our three skaters is a gold-medal threat and capable of upsetting the powerful Russians. "Everybody [on the U.S. team] has at one time or another beaten everybody else," says former U.S. champion Michael Weiss. America certainly has its deepest men's figure-skating team in Olympic history, the first ever to boast three national champions in Eldredge, 2001 champ Tim Goebel and Michael Weiss, a two-time winner in 1999 and 2000.

Eldredge brings polish, a pleasing style and a well-deserved reputation as the best and fastest spinner in the world; his breath-taking spin finale never fails to bring the audience to its feet. Goebel may be the best jumper in the world. His quads look effortless. And he has improved his artistry from his youthful plodding days, though his decision to skate to "An American in Paris" inevitably reminds you that he is no Gene Kelly. Weiss, who has struggled the past two seasons with injuries and erratic performances, is the compromise candidate; at his best he can deliver both the jumps and the interpretive style. "What separates [the Russians] from us?" said Weiss. "A few tenths of a point? Figure skating is a slippery sport. Strange things happen and we're expecting strange things to happen for us."

Still, most everyone regards the U.S. contingent as three men in search of one bronze-no match for Plushenko's dazzling lines and leaps or Yagudin's overflowing passion. The skaters don't seem unduly upset by that assessment, even if they believe they are being seriously underestimated. "I'm not worried about medals or Russians," says Eldredge, whose two previous Olympics have produced golds for Russians and nothing for him.

But the dismissal of American prospects by the press seems to grate more on their coaches, particularly Goebel's coach, Frank Carroll. Carroll has had a difficult season. He is one of the best-liked and most-respected coaches in the game. But despite an impressive roster of skaters over the decades, has never had the ultimate experience of coaching an Olympic gold-medal winner.

In 1980 at Lake Placid, his star, Linda Fratianne took silver in a controversial loss to Germany's eminently forgettable Annet Poetzsch. This was supposed to be his makeup year, with gold-medal favorite Michelle Kwan. But Kwan split with him in October, and his hopes for gold now ride on Goebel. That may explain why Carroll was a little prickly with the press when it came to the Russians. "They're soooo artistic," he mocked. "Well, that's a matter of opinion!" And he also suggested that they tend to wilt down the stretch of their free-skate routines. "They're not good marathon skaters, "he said.

"They have their flaws." Carroll even quibbled over the seemingly obvious notion that the Russian men have ascended in singles skating over the past decade. That despite the ample evidence of three straight Olympic golds won by Viktor Petrenko, Alexei Urmanov and Ilya Kulik and the last four world titles won by either Yagudin or Plushenko. But Carroll insisted that Russian men have always been strong singles skaters. And he cited chapter and verse on some relatively obscure Russians-Vladimir Kovalev, Sergei Volkov, Sergei Chetverukhin-who were among the skating elite in the 1970s.

The history lesson was a bit bizarre, but its purpose became increasingly clear. Not only Carroll, but also the other American coaches were itching to pick a fight about judging. The premise was that the Russians haven't improved all that much, it's just that the judging is more biased in favor of them. On the surface, the notion seems ludicrous, especially compared to the days of Cold War judging when we favored ours and they favored theirs. But the coaches had a point: when the Soviet Union broke up, it created a few more skating countries like Ukraine, Belarus and Uzbekistan with their own judges along with Russians in the judging pool. And while they many not be prejudiced against Americans any longer for political reasons, they still prefer, by dint of their background and training, the Russian skating style. Carroll's comments seemed quite prescient only a few days later. Last night the Russian pair of Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze, which had one little stumble in its routine, won the gold from the flawless Canadian world champs Jamie Sale and David Pelletier by the narrowest of margins-a 5 to 4 split of the judges' panel that created an uproar. "I always feel an American has to be to 50 percent better [than a Russian] to win," Carroll said.

It'll be tough enough skating them even. But Carroll's calculated hyperbole was clearly intended to send a message to the judges. And with a little public pressure and the American crowd going wild for the home team-the pairs competition produced the first "USA, USA" chant I've ever heard at figs-there is no telling how the Americans might profit. "I love the fact that the Russians are the favorites," says Eldredge's longtime coach Richard Callaghan. "So someone else comes in and ruins what is supposed to happen."

At the very least, the American contingent served notice that it will not go bronzing quietly. But while the coaches can talk the talk, it's up to the skaters to walk the walk. And in another epic Winter Olympics matchup of Americans vs Russians, don't hold your breath for a second miracle on ice.