The men’s event in Russia was always about Evgeny Plushenko.
His spot was virtually conceded at the beginning of the season by top brass in Russia: If he is well, he will go, they said.
Then Maxim Kovtun gave him a run. A real run. He’s an 18-year-old Russian born into the new judging system and when he comes out onto the ice in his free skate, with his arms rising to the beat of his music, it’s a glorious sight. He’s young and has a long way to go, but his marks climbed wildly this season, to the point that he had one of the top five scores in the world (Perhaps he was to be insurance in case Plushenko couldn’t make it.Plushenko had undergone back surgery on Jan. 31, 2013 in Tel Aviv, Israel to remove one of his spinal discs and replace it with a synthetic one.)
Then Kovtun stunned everybody by defeating a leg-weary Plushenko at Russian nationals. It seemed unthinkable. Kovtun had actually worked his way into contention for the Olympic spot
Or had he? Plushenko skipped European championships, while Kovtun went on and finished only fifth, perhaps giving the Russian authorities ammunition to choose Plushenko after all, following a closed-door test skate. Kovtun had to stay home.
Perhaps the reasons for this choice are clear. Plushenko brought an excitement to the rink when he skated in the team event. When he withdrew from the men’s short program in the individual competition, he sucked the air out with him when he left. And half of the crowd in the Iceberg Arena left with him. Without Plushenko, they weren’t interested.
Still, the timing stinks, especially for Kovtun, the next star that Russia has been waiting for, the one who would benefit from a go at an Olympic Games in his home country. Had Plushenko withdrawn with an injury certified by a medical doctor immediately after the team event on Sunday, Russia could have replaced him with Kovtun. The deadline passed at 10 a.m. local time on Monday.
Plushenko withdrew on Thursday evening, after a practice where he attempted no jumps, after a warmup that caused him pain. Enough pain that the warhorse could not go on. Apparently, he lost feeling in a leg. “I almost cried,” he said. “This is not how I wanted to end my career.”
Plushenko could have ended it with his victorious efforts in the team competition, as he had planned at Russian nationals.
“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 okay,” said Plushenko’s longtime coach, Alexei Mishin. “We didn’t do anything that wasn’t fair play.”
Mishin admitted that at the end of his long program, Plushenko was “feeling unsure,” and he had complained of a pinch in his back, which caused him to double a couple of jumps at the end. But Mishin said after working with him for 20 years, and having lots of success, this was only one incident when he was not successful. “ Please be kind to him and respect him,” he said.
But what about Kovtun? Javier Fernandez of Spain, sitting in third place after the short program said if he had been Plushenko, he would have given his place to another person “if I wasn’t 100 per cent.
“But Plushenko is Plushenko and he can decide what he can do and can’t do?” Fernandez said he wasn’t surprised by the withdrawal because Plushenko had been complaining about his back after the team event. “I think it was too excessive for him to skate two programs,” Fernandez said.
Compare this scenario to what happened at the 1,000-metre long-track speed skating event, when Gilmore Junio gave up his spot to skate to Canadian teammate Denny Morrison, who had a fallen during Olympic qualifiers and missed the spot at the distance that is his bread and butter. “It was an easy decision,” Junio said. Had he not done so, Morrison would have sat on the sidelines, as an alternate, watching, while Junio soaked up the Olympic experience. Junio didn’t let that happen and Morrison won a silver medal. Plushenko and the Russian federation did.
Junio’s gesture was about selflessness. The Russian federation’s decision was about prestige and reputation at a Games in the home country. And it backfired on them. Russia has no man at all to compete in the men’s event.