SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - Once a showman, always a showman and Yevgeny Plushenko managed to steal the spotlight at the Sochi Winter Olympics on Thursday - by doing absolutely nothing.
The Russian’s two-decade long career came to a sudden and sorry end on day seven of the Games when he pulled out of the men’s figure skating competition at the very last second.
He waited for the home crowd to welcome him onto the ice for his short program with chants of his nickname “Zhen-y-a, Zhen-y-a, Zhen-y-a” and then left them stunned and muted with his bombshell retirement announcement.
After the 2006 Olympic champion had an exchange with officials, a male voice announced in Russian over the Iceberg Skating Palace’s public address system “Yevgeny Plushenko cannot participate due to a trauma (injury)”.
It was a dramatic end to a career filled with brilliance, controversy, false retirements, surgeries and a Lada full of glittering prizes.
But anyone who has followed the Russian’s colorful career will not have expected anything else. Plushenko loves the spotlight and there was no way he was going to simply fade into retirement.
On a day when the world had tuned in to marvel at the soaring quads and complex footwork produced by Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu and Canada’s Patrick Chan, Plushenko overshadowed his rivals by taking centre stage to tell the world ‘it’s all over’.
“I think it was God saying, ‘Yevgeny enough, is enough,” he told a scrum of reporters while clutching his stricken back.
“It’s hard, believe me. This is not how I wanted to end my career. I am very disappointed. But I tried to do my best.
“I tried today to make it to the end... but there was no miracle.
“I don’t want to end up an invalid. I want to remain a competent boy who can walk normally.
“I am sorry for my fans and for everybody but I tried till the end. I almost cried.”
If tears were shed, cynics would say they were only crocodile tears.
When he finished second in the Russian nationals behind Maxim Kovtun, Plushenko announced he would leave the youth of the country to battle it out for the country’s sole spot in the men’s Olympic competition and instead would help the hosts to win the team competition in Sochi.
However, when he realized that Russia’s sole male entry would be the only man eligible to compete in the team event, Plushenko changed his tune and went into PR overdrive to drum up support for his Olympic bid.
Rather than going to the European Championships to see how he measured up against his younger compatriots, the 31-year-old secured his Olympic ticket following a secret test skate - shunting out a trio of rivals who had all finished in the top five at the continental event.
“(The way he was picked) tells you everything. Go to your nationals and compete with the best and if you deserve to go, then good, great,” 2002 Olympic pairs champion Jamie Sale told Reuters recently.
“But I don’t think it should be based on his popularity, or arrogance, or just because of his name.
“Plushenko is a great winner... I mean a great loser. He’s a poor winner and a poor loser. I am not a fan.”
His exit on Thursday left the hosts without a competitor to cheer in the men’s event.
Some even queried why Plushenko had not pulled out immediately after helping Russia win the team competition on Sunday.
His slow and underwhelming performance drew high marks but left former champions such as Robin Cousins to exclaim: “We all know Plushenko got a gift. He got a lifetime achievement award rather than being rewarded for what he did on the ice that day.”
Twice European champion Javier Fernandez added: “If he was feeling pain right after the team event .... if I was Plushenko I would just try to give a spot to another person if I am not 100 percent, but Plushenko is Plushenko.”
Alexei Mishin, who has mentored and coached the Russian motormouth throughout his career and even paid his rent when he had no money, disagreed.
“A substitution wouldn’t be fair play. Such a replacement would be trickery ... he was obliged to skate on,” Mishin said.
Fair play has not been Plushenko’s forte.
He had a prickly relationship with 2002 Olympic champion Alexei Yagudin, behind whom Plushenko won silver, and never seemed to congratulate rivals who had outclassed him.
After drumming up his credentials in the lead-up to the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, Plushenko ruined eventual champion Evan Lysacek’s moment of glory by declaring the American was “not a true champion” and won the gold by “dancing rather than skating like a man”.
The reason for his anger? Lysacek had won gold without attempting a single quadruple jump in his two programs.
Plushenko seemed to be in total denial that he had been penalized for a botched landing on his quad while Lysacek was rewarded for executing all of his planned elements flawlessly.
But amid all the self promotion and anger, Plushenko will go down as one of the all time greats.
His haul of a record-equaling four Olympic figure skating medals, including two golds, three world titles, seven European crowns and 10 Russian national championships will leave a lasting legacy. So will his sharp tongue.
Reporting by Pritha Sarkar, additional reporting by Alissa de Carbonnel and Steve Gutterman, editing by Mark Meadows