ALBERTVILLE, France -- Elvis left the building last night, and along with him departed any semblance of predicted order in the Olympic men's figure-skating competition.
Elvis would be Elvis Stojko of Canada, the 30th and final performer of the evening. By the time he had exited the Ice Hall in sixth place, men's figure skating had lapsed into terminal vertigo.
Kurt Browning, the three-time world champion from Canada, bungled any reasonable chance at a gold medal.
Paul Wylie, supposedly the only American without a chance at the gold, established himself as the only American WITH a
U.S. champion Christopher Bowman, who calls himself Bowman The Showman, presented such a listless performance that some people thought he would simply stop and walk off the ice.
Todd Eldredge, the U.S. champion in 1990 and '91, botched a double axel after landing a more difficult triple axel, and, astonished by his own ineptitude, gave himself the choke sign.
If anything adhered to form, it was that Viktor Petrenko of the former Soviet Union finished the original program in first place. Petr Barna, the European champion from Czechoslovakia, took second place, just ahead of Wylie in third.
Under figure skating's complicated formula for scoring, either Petrenko, Barna or Wylie would take the gold medal by winning tomorrow's four-minute long program.
The door remains open more than a few inches for Wylie, a 27-year-old Harvard graduate who lives in suburban Boston. Petrenko tends to lack stamina and fades in the long program. Barna does not possess a triple axel, a jump that requires 3 1/2 revolutions in the air and which Petrenko and Wylie both landed seamlessly last night.
"It's like the downhill," Wylie said. "People are thrust out of the gate and they hang on for dear life. You can't predict the order of finish."
Certainly, no one could have predicted that Browning would stumble his way out of the lead pack, falling on an attempted triple axel and thus unable to complete his triple-toe-loop combination.
Browning, who dressed in a peculiar King Tut On Ice costume, complete with bracelets, happens to be the world's best jumper, the first ever to land a quadruple jump in competition. Crash-landing a routine triple axel, even after a season of back problems, stunned him more than it did the gasping 8,000 spectators.
"I went down so fast, I don't really know what happened," he said.
Four times since 1948, a three-time world champion has skated in the Olympics, and four times he has won the gold medal. Browning will not, unless he wins tomorrow's long program, Petrenko finishes third or lower and Jupiter aligns with Mars.
"I'm going to need help," Browning said.
Wylie needs no more help than to remain calm and relaxed. Until last night, he had a notorious reputation for melting at major competitions, especially in the short program, because he thought too much, skating with his brain instead of his feet.
He finished 20th at the 1991 world championships in the short program and barely made the cut. Some thought he didn't belong on the Olympic team. After 10 appearances at the U.S. Championships he has yet to win a title.
He fell during warm-ups, but composed himself and delivered a fluid, expressive program, sailing through a triple-axel, triple-toe combination, gaining confidence and drawing the audience in with a widesmile and the crisp, overstated gestures of a show skater.
"He skated with one basic thought -- don't lunge and muscle his jumps," said Wylie's coach, Evy Scotvold. "It's like a golf swing. -- When you try to hit it too hard, it goes in the water."
Bowman didn't go in the water. He went in the tank. Skating after a Zamboni intermission, he appeared slow, disinterested, unexpressive, not exactly recommended for a skater who relies on pure emotion. He touched his hand to the ice on a triple axel attempt and landed in seventh place, just behind Stojko, who was shortchanged by the judge from the former Soviet Union.
"There was no buzz in the air; people were still munching on croissants and Euro-burgers," Bowman said. "It was difficult to pull the audience into my program. They were more interested in concessions and finding their seats."
Eldredge, who has struggled the last month with back problems, tumbled on a double-axel attempt and later put his index finger to his head, signaling his knuckleheadedness. He followed that with a choke sign. The judges apparently agreed, dismissing him in ninth place.
"I've probably done 10 million double axels in my life," Eldredge said. I don't know if I ever missed one. It was kinda stupid. Like trying a slam dunk and missing."
And so, the only U.S. medal hope rests with Wylie.
"The short program is a mid-term, the long program is the final," Wylie said. "I have to prepare for the final and ace it."