SOCHI, Russia // The host nation mourned the “tragedy” of Yevgeny Plushenko’s dramatic retirement from the Olympic men’s figure-skating competition, but questions remained over the state of his surgically repaired back.
Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan, only 19, won the gold medal in a ragged men’s final, with Canada’s Patrick Chan second and Kazakhstan’s Denis Ten third, but much of the spotlight was still on Plushenko.
His withdrawal from the competition during the short programme on Thursday, which ended his illustrious career, means that the Sochi Games are the first since Sarajevo 1984 that the USSR or post-Soviet Russia failed to win a medal in the men’s event.
Russian media expressed sympathy for Plushenko, 31, who further injured his back in the warm-up.
But there were also hard questions as to why the fragile veteran had not pulled out of the Olympics after winning gold in the team competition, which would have allowed Russia to field a replacement.
“The great career of our skater ended in a genuine human tragedy,” said the Sovietsky Sport daily on its front page. It quoted a tearful Plushenko as saying: “I ask forgiveness from my fans.”
The withdrawal of Plushenko, who won gold at the 2006 Turin Games, was met with horrified gasps from the crowd, many of whom promptly left the venue.
“It was a lamentable spectacle,” the three-time Olympic gold medallist Irina Rodnina told Sovietsky Sport.
“The festive atmosphere vanished the moment Plushenko left.”
His departure was also controversial, given the debate that preceded his selection over his rival, the Russian champion Maxim Kovtun, 18.
The Sport Express daily asked: “What was the need to do all of this, depriving not only Maxim Kovtun of his chance to perform at the Games but also the entire country of having a representative in the final?”
But it added that “while we understood there was practically no chance of the veteran pulling off this adventure, all the more we wanted to see a miracle”.
According to a report by the pro-government NTV network, Plushenko asked, two days before his performance in the individual, to be withdrawn due to his injury.
In a chaotic sequence of events, the Russian Skating Federation then turned to Kovtun but could not find him.
The federation turned again to Plushenko, NTV said. The federation denied the report.
The president of Russia’s figure skating federation, Alexander Gorshkov, told the Izvestia daily that Plushenko was leaving the Olympics a “hero” after returning from back surgery. “Yevgeny brought a huge contribution to the victory of the Russian team in the team competition and this makes him a true hero,” he said.
But it remained a mystery why Plushenko had not bowed out with his honour – and his back – intact after the team glory.
Plushenko, who helped Russia win the Eurovision song contest in 2008, transcends his status as a figure skater and is one of the country’s biggest celebrities.
The maverick head of the nationalist Liberal Democrat Party, one of four parties represented in the Russian parliament, whipped up a huge controversy by describing Plushenko as an invalid who should never have been allowed to perform.
Vladimir Zhirinovsky said: “This is not a house for the sick, it is the Olympic Games!”
Two events into the men’s Olympic Alpine skiing programme and some of the sport’s biggest names are yet to join the party.
Sunday’s downhill was won by the Austrian Matthias Mayer, who had never topped a World Cup podium, and the pattern continued in the super combined when the favourites were left in the shade by the Swiss outsider Sandro Viletta.
Bode Miller, the 36-year-old American, suffered more frustration when he was sixth in the super combined, a bit better than eighth in the downhill, in which he was favourite with Norway’s Aksel Lund Svindal.
Svindal, who won gold, silver, and bronze in Vancouver, was edged off the podium by the less well-known Norwegian Kjetil Jansrud in the downhill and was eighth in the super combined.
Another headliner, the US triple world champion Ted Ligety was 12th in his opening event at the Games yesterday and admitted the Olympics was throwing up “funky results”.
Miller skied like a demon in the first few days of training last week, punching in some quick times, but since the weather has turned warm and sunny his speeds have cooled.
This super-G offers a chance of redemption, but Miller seems to be in something of a fog over course conditions.
“It’s going to be tough,” he said after his failure to defend his super combined title. “Skiing is not meant to happen when its 50 or 60 degrees.
“It’s just mistakes,” added Miller, who with five Olympic medals and four world titles is his country’s most decorated skier.
Svindal was sanguine after missing a medal in the downhill but was frustrated after the super combined. “I need to have a reality check because the fact is, I was one of the favourites.”
Lizzy Yarnold delivered Great Britain’s first gold of the Sochi Games thanks to a four-run aggregate in the skeleton that was 0.98 seconds faster than America’s Noelle Pikus-Pace.