SOCHI, RUSSIA – Evgeni Plushenko’s rivals were stunned Thursday night after hearing that the four-time Olympic medalist had withdrawn injured at the last minute from the Winter Olympics.
Plushenko pulled out shortly before he was due to skate his short program at the Iceberg Skating Palace, after stumbling out of a triple-axel jump and quickly announced he was calling time on his career.
Rumors that the 31-year-old, a two-time Olympic gold and two-time silver medalist, might not compete had been rife after he complained of a sore back after helping his team win the inaugural team gold.
“He has been to four Olympics and has won four Olympic medals and that speaks volumes to his career,” said American Jeremy Abbott, who was skating in Plushenko’s group and suffered a nasty fall himself on his opening quadruple jump.
“Kudos to him for all he’s done for the sport. It’s unfortunate to have to withdraw from a competition in that way. But he’s still a king in his country.”
Yuzuru Hanyu lifted spirits among the deflated home crowd with a world-record score of 101.45 in the short program to lead Canada’s Patrick Chan and Javier Fernandez of Spain.
“I was disappointed not to see him in first place when I took the ice,” said Hanyu.
“I took up skating because of him. I respect him and admire him dearly. It’s just sad. I’m really glad I had the opportunity to skate against him in the team event.”
Three-time world champion Chan, who finished fifth behind silver medalist Plushenko when they competed in Vancouver, said he was disappointed that he did not get to compete against the Russian again.
“It’s not like playing hockey, like we’re a team sport,” said Chan, third in the team short program behind Hanyu and Plushenko. “Figure skating is such an individual event and we compete individual against individual. We hit the stage one by one.
“I am disappointed he wasn’t fit to compete. I wish him well for a quick recovery.”
But amid the accolades from skaters, many of whom took up the sport because of the Russian star, who won the first of his five world medals — three gold — in 1998, were questions over the lateness of the call.
Czech Tomas Verner said Plushenko should have withdrawn earlier to give another competitor a shot, with Russia now without a skater in the men’s event.
“I’m sorry for the other Russian guys who couldn’t take his place,” said Verner, referring to the likes of national champion Maxim Kovtun or Sergei Voronov, the 2014 European silver medalist.
“I think Zhenya (Plushenko) is a great athlete, but today it was more expected that he wouldn’t be able to compete. He might have just outskated himself in the team event. He won a gold medal there and I congratulate him for that and it is rightfully his.
“But it’s a shame he couldn’t say, ‘Guys, I’m tired, put someone else in the game instead of me.’ “
Plushenko’s coach, Alexei Mishin, defended his decision to compete.
“We didn’t do anything that wasn’t fair play,” he said.
“I know that the morning after the free skate (of the team event), the (Russian figure skating) federation should have made a change, but at that time he was OK.”