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    Thursday, February 5, 1998

    Stojko gets the jump on rivals

    By STEVE BUFFERY -- Toronto Sun
    NAGANO --  Great news for Elvis Stojko: Sports Illustrated picked the figure skater to finish second at these Olympics and his two main rivals seem to be scrambling.
     The weekly U.S. sports publication predicted that Russian Ilia Kulik would win the men's singles gold medal, with Stojko taking the silver and American Todd Eldredge the bronze.
      Of course, being chosen to win by SI is something most athletes dread. It has been known to be a kiss of death.
     As for Kulik and Eldredge, Stojko's main challengers are both struggling to get over injury and program difficulties.
     Eldredge, 26, separated his shoulder at Skate America earlier this season while Kulik missed the European championships last month because of a back problem.
     The Russian, who defeated Stojko at the Champions Series final in Munich in December on the strength of presentation scores, has missed three weeks of training because of his injury and only recently returned to 100%.
     Eldredge has recovered from his injury, but both he and Kulik just recently touched down in Japan.
     That's a mistake, said former Canadian men's singles champion Michael Slipchuk, who is the skating media liaison officer at the Games for the Canadian team.
     "Elvis did the right thing coming in early (Sunday)," Slipchuk said. "That extra time here is valuable. He can take his time getting ready and even a bad day isn't a problem.
     "You don't want to get in too close to the competition."
     The men's competition begins next Thursday with the short program. The free skate is a week Saturday.
     Stojko, 25, travelled directly from Toronto to Nagano, via Vancouver and Osaka, skipping the Olympic team staging in Calgary. The plan was to get here early, rest, get media conferences out of the way and start training after recovering from jet-lag.
     "Been there, done that," Stojko's coach Doug Leigh said of the staging, where the athletes get feted and decked out in various Olympic uniforms. "This is Elvis' third Olympics. He doesn't need speeches and parties."
     Word out of the U.S. camp yesterday was that Eldredge, who finished a disappointing third at the Champions Series final, has abandoned his new short program for an old routine. Such a move usually suggests a slight case of panic.
     As for Stojko, whose Taiko drums short program is expected to electrify the fans, the three-time world champion expressed surprise at his popularity in Japan.
     "But all in all it's been quite calm," Stojko said. "At least for the moment. I think as the week goes on and the competition gets closer, things will heat up."
     Stojko has become as much a fan favorite in Japan as he is in Canada. He's not sure why, although quad-double jump combinations may have something to do with it.
     He also comes across as just a regular Joe, not a preening prima donna.
     "I think just by being yourself and being honest to people - I think they recognize that," he said.
     "I'm just an ordinary person.I don't think your ego, or the way that you look at yourself, should change just because of the accomplishments you have."