Figure skater Evgeni Plushenko's withdrawal from competition at the Sochi Olympics is a story, worthy of a soap opera, which says as much about the way sports are run in Vladimir Putin's Russia as the showbiz nature of modern figure skating.
To Russians, Plushenko is more than just an ice skater. Apart from securing Olympic gold for Russia in 2006 and silver in 2002 and 2010, Plushenko helped crooner Dima Bilan win the Eurovision song contest in 2008. He is married to one of the nation's most glamorous women, entertainment producer Yana Rudkovskaya, and their life together is avidly covered by the tabloids and celebrity magazines.
"No broadcast could convey the scale of the tragedy," Stepan Chaushyan reported for the tabloid Argumenti i Fakti, when the news broke. "People who had come from Vladivostok to see Plushenko, who paid more than 200,000 rubles ($6,000) for tickets, flights and hotels, were ripping up their tickets right there: they had not come to see the Chinese guy, the Canadian or even the Japanese. They'd come to root for Plushenko."
As an athlete, however, Plushenko, 31, has recently suffered one setback after another. After winning silver in Vancouver – and complaining loudly about the judging – he missed most top-level tournaments because of injuries. Last year, he crashed to the ice at the world championships and had to pull out. It took complex spine surgery to get him back on his feet, and in January, 2014, he lost to 18-year-old Maxim Kovtun at the Russian national championship. According to the Russian Figure Skating Federation's own rules, Kovtun was supposed to travel to Sochi, but, after much debate, officials decided to send Plushenko, anyway. The 18-year-old was deemed too inexperienced and erratic, because of a woeful failure at the 2014 European championships.
A number of Russian commentators suspected a plot: Plushenko was to compete in the team tournament and then pull out with an injury, leaving it to Kovtun to compete for the singles medal. The Olympic champion naively gave it all away, saying, "At the Olympics, I think, I will choose the team tournament and give the individual competition to a young athlete with prospects." Such advance planning is against Olympic rules, and Valentin Piseyev, chief executive of the Russian Figure Skating Federation, had to describe Plushenko's statement as "emotional," saying: "Not all athletes have a precise knowledge of the rules." That didn't mean Piseyev himself intended to stick to them, though. He added that what happened after the team competition would depend on Plushenko's health.
In Sochi, Plushenko wowed the audience with his perfect execution of the most complicated jumps and the forceful, over-the-top artistry for which he is known. He took first place, helping Russia to a team gold. Then something went wrong.
On Feb. 10, Russian Figure Skating Federation President Alexander Gorshkov said Plushenko would keep competing, although he had felt some back pain during the free skate. Russia's sensationalist NTV channel claimed that Plushenko had no other option but to keep going: The federation could not locate Kovtun, who was off in a funk somewhere with his phone turned off. The official version is different. "A substitution was only possible after the team tournament," Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko told the daily Sport Express. "Evgeni consulted with Coach Alexei Mishin and the doctors and said he could keep on competing. We could not have made a different decision."
Mere minutes before the singles tournament was to start, the stadium announcer informed the public of Plushenko's withdrawal. "It must have been God's will," a dejected Plushenko later told reporters, explaining that his back injury had acted up. "I did not want to give up. Do not believe those who say I had a plan to withdraw after the team tournament. I was ready to go to the end."
Russia, whose only two gold medals at the Sochi Olympics so far are in figure skating, no longer has a participant in the men's singles tournament, and Plushenko has been attacked by fans, including former athletes, as a wimp. Nationalist lawmaker Igor Lebedev called Plushenko a traitor on Twitter, insisting he should have let Kovtun compete. "The reason I like fight sports is if you're in the ring, you have no option but to win or die a loser," remarked Nikolai Valuev, former heavyweight boxing champion and now also a member of parliament.
Plushenko's defenders pointed out he could have suffered permanent damage to his back if he decided to go on. "If Plushenko found himself in a wheelchair after competing, everyone would have shed tears for a couple of hours and then forgotten all about him," talk show host Vladimir Soloviev tweeted. He added: "I have many more questions for the federation officials than for Plushenko."
Indeed, the choice of an injured star over a talented youth and disregard for rules are typical of the way top-level sports are managed in today's Russia. The Soviet system of selecting and training young athletes, which served as a model for the frighteningly effective Chinese sports machine of today, is gone. The few remaining stars brought up by that system, including Plushenko, are squeezed relentlessly for their few remaining drops of gold. Bureaucrats, concerned only with the medal count, concentrate all their attention on these stars, which sometimes leads to younger and lesser-known Russian athletes to switch their allegiances and win for other nations.
Plushenko may be unhappy that he had to go this way, but his producer wife believes he has "done all he could for this country." Said Rudkovskaya: "He has already brought it a team gold medal, what else does he need to do?"
Nothing for his country, perhaps, but still plenty for his family and his one-year-old son. Injury or no injury, Plushenko is going on a major tour of Russia with 15 shows scheduled for March alone. The tour has been confirmed since the figure skater's withdrawal from the Olympics. The most expensive tickets for the March 3 show in Izhevsk are available for about $100.
(Leonid Bershidsky writes on Russia, Europe and technology for Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter.)
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