In an intriguing turn of events, Russian figure skater Evgeni Plushenko withdrew from the mens individual event at the Olympics, stunning the hometown crowd in Sochi. In doing so, Plushenko announced his retirement from amateur skating, making it the last time the former gold-medalist will step on Olympic ice.
After attempting two jumps in warm-up, the highly decorated Russian skater stumbled and winced visibly. He then skated in a circle holding his lower back. At the end of warm-up he spoke to his coach, then glided over to the row of judges and announced he was withdrawing.
"It was like a knife in the back," Plushenko said of the pain he felt on the ice.
Plushenko, who has been battling back problems for the past year, has had multiple surgeries to correct the pain. He was considered a threat to the top skaters in the event, given how he has performed recently.
After missing much of the past two years on the international circuit, the silver-medal winner from the Vancouver Olympics returned last week for the team figure skating event, and looked in top form as the Russians took the gold medal.
His successful return in that event had many wondering if Plushenko could suddenly contend for the podium, and pose a threat to favourites Patrick Chan of Canada, Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan, and Javier Fernandez of Spain. Even at 31, Plushenko, who owns a gold and two silvers in the mens event at the Olympics, is still considered a prolific jumper.
However, after the team figure skating medal, he told Russian reporters he was going to have his back checked out since he was experiencing pain. He said he felt pain over the past few days, and tried to fight through it. He took painkillers Thursday morning and tried to will himself to skate, but when he got on the ice it was apparent the pain was too much.
"I think this is God saying Evgeni, enough skating," he said. In announcing his retirement, he brings to a close a storied figure skating career in which some consider him the most talented mens skater of his generation. He has won medals at the past four Olympics, including the gold in the team event in Sochi.
His withdrawal hangs over the mens event, and is sure to spark intrigue about the extent of the injury.
His coach Alexei Mishin acknowledged that Plushenko critics might doubt whether the skater was truly injured and had only come back for the Sochi Olympics to win a medal in the team event, before pulling out of the individual program. But Mishin said these people are in the "minority" of people in the skating world who are "jealous" of the success Plushenko has seen in the past.
Mishin said Plushenko's back is so injured, and has undergone so many surgeries, that the only way he could continue competing on Olympic ice is "if figure skating would become a part of the Paralympics."
His unexpected withdrawal means Russia will not contend for a medal in the mens individual event. Russia could have replaced Plushenko earlier in the week had they known the extent of his pain, but missed the deadline to make a substitution. Plushenko said he awoke Thursday intending to skate but that it proved impossible.
Even heading in to Sochi, there had been questions whether Plushenko would be able to compete, given his injury problems. To make the Russian team for the Games, he was given a special try-out for a panel of Russian skating officials, in order to show his form. After seeing him skate at that closed-door session, and after 18-year-old Maxim Kovtun faltered badly at the European Championships, finishing fifth, Russian officials gave the country's only spot to Plushenko.
When it was announced to the audience at the Iceberg Skating Palace that the Russian skating legend was pulling out "due to medical reasons," the 8,000 people in attendance groaned in dismay, then applauded in appreciation of the veteran skater. Russian fans threw flowers on the ice -- the same bouquets they brought to throw after he skated -- moments after Plushenko left for the locker room.
Speaking mostly through a translator, Plushenko said he now sees the men's gold medal as a three-way race between Japan's Hanyu, Canada's Chan and Spain's Fernandez.