"Agence France Presses" February 16, 2006

Turin (AFP) - Russia's Evgeny Plushenko was crowned Olympic champion when he crushed his opponents to claim gold in the men's figure skating competition.

The 23-year-old led all the way to take the only title missing from his collection ahead of world champion Stephane Lambiel of Switzerland with Jeffrey Buttle of Canada snatching bronze after the free skate final.

It is the second figure skating gold of the championships for Russia after Tatiana Totmianina and Maxim Marinin took the pairs title on Monday.

Plushenko punched the air in delight after achieving his best ever free skate scores for his routine to The Godfather.

He beat Lambiel by a massive 27.12 points.

The three-time world champion becomes the fifth consecutive Russian or former Soviet Union skater to win the Olympic men's title and succeeds Alexei Yagudin behind whom he had to settle for silver four years ago.

Since then he has had to battle back from injury.

"Four years ago it was not my Olympic Games for sure. This Olympic Games is mine," said Plushenko.

"It was nothing special today. I did what I needed to do for the gold medal."

In Salt Lake City Plushenko had entered as the co-favourite with Yagudin after winning the world title the previous year.

But a fall in the short programme left him trailing in fourth before he fought his way back to the silver medal position.

This time he made no mistake.

He skated perfectly in his short programme to Tosca to open up a massive 10.66-point advantage on America's Johnny Weir going into the free skating final.

Skating the first in the final group, a tense-looking Plushenko opened with a solid quadruple-triple-double toeloop combination.

He followed with six more triples including two in combination.

The only glitch in his programme was towards the end of his routine when he doubled his flip.

But after four-and-a-half minutes, there was no doubt the gold was his.

In the fight for the remaining podium places Lambiel, who took the world title last year when Plushenko retired injured, moved up from third after US champion Weir slipped to fifth.

The Swiss skater, wearing his "magic winged zebra" outfit, also landed a quad-triple-double toeloop combination.

But the 20-year-old touched down attempting his second quad and fell on a triple lutz in his programme to Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons".

Buttle, the world silver medallist, had been in sixth after the short programme but took the third spot a further 3.62 points behind.

The 23-year-old fell on his quadruple jump, and doubled his loop but scored the second highest free skate scores for his Samson and Delilah routine.

"I'm proud of myself," said Buttle. "Sadly I slipped and fell down. The rest was good. It was the best you can ask for."

He paid tribute to Plushenko.

"He's pushed skating more than anyone I've ever known," said Buttle.

"He's consistency is incredible. Being on the podium with him is a real honour. This bronze means more to me than the silver last year without him on the podium."

Lambiel added: "It's very difficult to come back from injury. Last year was not a good year for Evgeny. He came back and won the Europeans and the Olympics. It's a big achievement."

Weir, meanwhile, dropped to fifth just ahead of France's 2004 world silver medallist Brian Joubert.

The American did not attempt a quad. He landed six triples and two-footed his triple axel.

"I'm peed off. I'm beyond angry with myself right now," said Weir.

"My elements weren't strong. I didn't deserve a medal tonight."

The gold crowns Plushenko's career after a catalogue of injuries had plagued him over the past two years.

He withdrew from last year's world championships with a groin injury and had double hernia surgery two months later.

But he said he has never felt healthier.

"It was hard, believe me it was hard," he said of his return from injury.

"I had two groin operations and it was difficult to skate against these guys.

"Right now I feel very healthy after the operation. I can jump, perform I can work more and more.

"I have a great coach. I have also something inside me. I like to work. I like to compete."

Russia are now halfway to their bid for an historic Olympic title sweep after Totmianina and Marinin took pairs gold.

Irina Slutskaya remains favourite in the ladies event and Tatiana Navka and Roman Kostomarov in ice dancing.



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