Reporting from Vancouver, Canada — At 68, Alexei Mishin looks like the outermost member in a set of Russian nesting dolls. Round, bald and stout, with an impish smile that creates the effect of an innocent munchkin who is everyone's favorite uncle.
The images on the inner Mishin dolls would show the venerable figure-skating coach and 1968 Olympian in pairs as a sly manipulator in a sport where such tactics have long been accepted.
So Mishin wasted no time putting his spin on the tempest-in-a-teapot controversy that has preceded the men's Olympic competition, which begins Tuesday with the short program.
"I am very upset," Mishin said, "about this war that is being waged against Evgeni."
That would be Russia's Evgeni Plushenko, whom Mishin coaches.
Plushenko has become the 2010 Olympic favorite after making an impressive return to competition from a three-year retirement that followed his gold medal at the 2006 Turin Games.
"He is better than four years ago," Mishin insisted.
The question is whether Plushenko, 27, trying to win the first back-to-back men's golds since Dick Button in 1948 and 1952, is good enough by the standards of a judging system dramatically revised since being first used at an Olympics four years ago.
After winning the European title last month, Plushenko indicated he doesn't fit the demands of the new system's requirement that there be significant transitional movements before and between the jumps he does more impressively than anyone in the world.
Referring to himself and France's Brian Joubert, the 2007 world champion, Plushenko said: "We don't have any transitions, because we focus on our jumps."
One would never know that from the marks for "transitions/linking footwork" Plushenko received at the Europeans, scores topped only by Switzerland's Stephane Lambiel, considered a master of the new system.
The combination of those scores and Plushenko's statement led a longtime international judge from the United States, Joe Inman, to fire off an e-mail to several friends -- some of them judges.
In the e-mail, first reported by the French newspaper L'Equipe, Inman said, "I find this an interesting observation . . . and the judges' marking of his transitions."
Questioned about the intent of his remarks, Inman replied by e-mail they had been twisted "into so much more than it was."
They took on larger significance because Inman, a full-time piano teacher not judging at these Olympics, gives judging seminars for the International Skating Union.
Didier Gailhaguet, the president of the French skating federation who was banned from the sport for three years for his involvement in the 2002 pairs judging scandal, said Inman's comments showed North American lobbyists at work, presumably on behalf of Evan Lysacek of the U.S. and Patrick Chan of Canada, the top two finishers at the 2009 world championships.
Lobbying is nothing new in figure skating.
Lysacek's coach, Frank Carroll, said in an interview before Skate America last November that fault-finding is a way to counteract his skater's consistency.
"They kind of know Evan is going to skate well, so they are thinking, 'How do we get our guy ahead of him? Let's find technical errors.'
"That's the way of the world. We think the new scoring system is not corrupt and has dealt with cheating, but cheating will always go on."
Carroll has pulled no punches in his criticism of Plushenko, whom he considers outdated.
"He's doing a 6.0 [old system] program," Carroll said. "He is not getting the bullet points and difficulty of the new system. I am not impressed."
Mishin counters that skaters without quadruple jumps are the ones the sport has passed by.
Plushenko has been doing quads in both his short and long programs. Lysacek said he almost certainly will not attempt a quad in the Olympics because of a recurrence of the foot injury that kept him from trying one at the 2009 worlds.
Chan also does not have a quad in his repertoire.
"[People] criticize Evgeni, saying he is from an older age, but skating without a quad is the last century," Mishin said.
"Evgeni is still on the front part of the skating movement."