Evgeni Plushenko Makes a Painful Exit Amid Controversy at Sochi

Tom Weir@@tomweirsportsFeatured ColumnistFebruary 13, 2014

Ivan Sekretarev/AP Images

Throughout a dazzling career that's seen him win four Olympic medals, adoring crowds have often begged Evgeni Plushenko for encores. But the sad and controversial fact is that Russia's greatest-ever male figure skater hung around for one too many curtain calls in Sochi.

Plushenko's aching back broke down on him yet again as he was warming up for Thursday's short program at the Winter Olympics

The crowd at the Iceberg Palace fell silent, correctly sensing the last look at their skating legend wouldn't include his trademark quadruple-triple-double combination, but rather, a humble exit. His retirement announcement came a couple of hours later.

It's not like the Russian coaches and Plushenko himself shouldn't have seen this coming. He's had 12 surgeries. He's mostly had work done on his knees, which have been torqued to their breaking point in a career that saw him win his first Olympic medal 12 years ago.

But he's had at least two surgeries on his back, including one to implant four screws just last year.

That surgery and ensuing recovery was why the 31-year-old had been on the ice so little in the past year. But it doesn't explain why the Russians chose to give Plushenko their one and only slot in the men's competition at Sochi.

Unerring hindsight now makes it clear the better choice would have been Maxim Kovtun, the rapidly rising 18-year-old who won Russia's national championship this year in Plushenko's absence.

Kovtun wouldn't have been a medal contender, having placed only fifth at the European Championships. But he would have gained valuable Olympic experience in front of many of the same judges who likely will be grading him at the 2018 Games in South Korea.

Instead, the Olympic berth went to Plushenko, and not because of a competitive result, but rather, after a private audition. Contrary to the goal of using the Sochi Olympics to globally showcase a new and revitalized Russia, the figure skating officials went with the old guard.

It was a gamble, sports minister Vitaly Mutko conceded, 'but what is better — just to go and give a worthy performance or to take a risk and taste the champagne?' They went for the bubbly, which Plushenko had provided so often before."

Plushenko is a little like U.S. snowboarder Shaun White, who took a spot in the slopestyle event but then left it vacant because he felt the course presented too much risk of injury.

Plushenko had dropped so many hints that he might call it quits in Sochi after figure skating's team event that NBC commentators Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir at times talked about him in the past tense.

Plushenko waves goodbye to his Russian fans.
Plushenko waves goodbye to his Russian fans.Ivan Sekretarev/Associated Press/Associated Press

And boy, what a great decision it would have been to quit after helping Russia win the team gold with an impressive short program and the best men's score in the free skate.

After that competition, Plushenko told reporters (via the Toronto Star) that, “It doesn't matter what kind of result it will be in the end. I’ve already won—for myself.”

Plushenko could have skated off into the sunset, knowing his 2006 gold and silvers from 2002 and 2010 had secured an unparalleled legacy in his homeland. Instead, he was on the ice Thursday, preparing to skate seventh out of 30 competitors, until a triple axel during warmups rattled him back to the reality of his physical state.

Plushenko consults coach Alexei Mishin before pulling out.
Plushenko consults coach Alexei Mishin before pulling out.Darron Cummings/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

Plushenko grabbed at his back several times in distress. He went up for one more jump and landed wobbling and in obvious pain. With that, he skated over for a heart-to-heart with his coach, Alexei Mishin, the father figure he's been working with for 20 years. From there, Plushenko went to the judges' area, gave them the bad news and then skated out to center ice as his name was called on the public address system.

Holding his hands out, Plushenko's look was one of helplessness. He waved to the crowd that had arrived hoping for one last hurrah from its golden-haired national treasure, put his hands over his heart and then left the ice.

Plushenko left figure skating once before, after winning in Turin in 2006. He took a two-year break, largely because of the injuries that still plague him. This time, he has likely retired for good. 

"I think it's God saying, 'Evgeni, enough, enough with skating,'" said Plushenko (via The Associated Press). "Age, it's OK. But I have 12 surgeries. I'd like to be healthy."

He added that the pain  felt "like a knife in my back."

"This is not tragedy what happened with Evgeni," Mishin told USA Today. "I was with him 20 years. Mostly we have good success. Mostly he was a winner."

Mostly, without question, but not on Thursday.

Tom Weir has covered eight Winter Olympics as a columnist and reporter for USA Today. You can follow him on Twitter at @TomWeirSports.