Is Plushenko jumping in over his head?

At the very last moment, legendary figure skater Evgeni Plushenko was selected to represent Russia in the men’s singles category at the Sochi Olympics. Why did the Russian sporting authorities choose Plushenko over rising star Maxim Kovtun? And is Plushenko himself ready to face the new generation of figure skating talent at what will almost certainly be his last Games?

Evgeni Plushenko was the first skater to deliver the quad toe loop – triple toe loop – triple Rittberger cascade in a competitive program. Source: Reuters

Anna Kozina, special to RBTH

Evgeni Plushenko, men’s singles figure skating gold medalist the Turin 2006 Games and silver medalist in the 2002 and 2010 Winter Olympics, is not shy about his accomplishments.

“I want my achievement to be unbeatable,” he said. “There may be other skaters around who have taken part in three Olympic Games. But four? I doubt it. It’s impossible. Why, then, is it possible for me? Because I am the only one. I don't believe in false modesty, even though I am a modest person, on the whole… But God has given me talent, perseverance, and dedication.”

For the record, there are actually other figure skaters who have competed in four Olympic Games. Sweden’s Gillis Grafström won gold at the 1920, 1924 and 1928 Games, and silver in 1932. And the Sochi Olympics will also be the fourth for France’s Brian Joubert, the 2005 World Champion.

This was not the first such statement by Plushenko during the fierce struggle to become Russia’s representative in the men’s singles category. After losing the Russian championship to 18-year old Maxim Kovtun, Plushenko furiously argued that the young prodigy should try his luck in the singles at the next Olympics.

At the time, Plushenko’s coach Alexei Mishin asked journalists to disregard the skater’s outbursts, putting them down to stress after his poor performance. But after cooling off, Plushenko himself said that the competition for the ticket to Sochi was not over. Kovtun had yet to prove at the European Championship that his victory back home in Russia was not just a fluke.

In fact, the young skater failed to cope with the pressure of the competition, and came in only fifth, behind two other Russians – Sergey Voronov and Konstantin Menshov. Now Voronov and Kovtun - in that particular order – have been designated as substitute skaters for the Olympics in case there are any problems with Plushenko.

Plushenko, meanwhile, gave an excellent performance at his pre-Olympic demonstration.

“His performance today was even better than the one he gave at the Vancouver Games," Mishin said. “He has given his absolute best, including a perfectly executed quad toe loop, a cascade of ‘four plus three’ toe loops, and two triple axel jumps. He did touch the ice with his hand during the first one, but then he did a triple Lutz and a triple Salchow, both of them perfect. His delivery was full of emotion. This was the real Plushenko,” the coach proudly said.

Plushenko was just as full of optimism as his coach. “I feel great,” he said. “Thank God, my old injuries aren’t bothering me. I am confident that fitness-wise, I am quite ready for all four of my performances at the Olympics. The team tournament days are Feb. 6 and 9, and the singles days are the 13th and 14th. That leaves me more than enough time to recuperate before each performance.”

Most experts agree that Plushenko is currently the best of the available candidates for the position.

Maksim Marinin, who won a pairs skating gold at the 2006 Games, supported the decision by the Figure Skating Federation and the Sports Ministry.

“Experience is usually more useful at the Olympics than youth," Marinin said. “I like Maxim Kovtun very much, but in this situation, it was a good decision to opt for Evgeni Plushenko instead. At the very least, Plushenko’s performance is predictable. As for whether this will be enough to win - I don't know. Men's singles are always a lottery, in many ways."

A new generation

Many continue to insist, however, that Plushenko’s time is over. “I am a great admirer of Evgeni Plushenko,” said the American skater Johnny Weir. “He has made an enormous contribution to figure skating. He revolutionized the sport in his day. So I am not saying he's not a great skater - but the young skaters from Canada and Japan are clearly performing at a much higher level these days. It is possible to teach an old dog new tricks, but it’s very difficult.”

Weir cites the examples of Patrick Chan, the 23-year-old three time world champion from Canada, and Yuzuru Hanyū, a 19-year old from Japan who has won he Grand Prix finale. Both have been given record-breaking scores by the judges on several occasions. Chan's record is a combined 295.27 points for two performances and 196.75 for the free program. Hanyū is the leader in the short program with a score of 99.84. Plushenko’s best overall result under the International Skating Union (ISU) scoring system is 263.25.

Perhaps this is why Plushenko’s team is cautious in its predictions for any medals.

“Evgeni has been preparing for the Olympics using the right plan," said his coach. “The goal was to make sure that he is in the best possible shape when the most important moment comes. As for whether a gold medal is our only goal at these Games, I would not put it that way. Our goal is to represent our country honorably. That is the main thing.”

Plushenko, meanwhile, had this to say about his goals. “In Salt Lake City I still needed some polishing. In Turin, my dream came true. In Vancouver I slightly underestimated the judges' ability to take away someone’s victory. Now the important thing is simply to do my job rather than worry about medals.”

Highlights from Plushenko’s career:

Evgeni Plushenko was the first skater to deliver the quad toe loop – triple toe loop – triple Rittberger cascade in a competitive program (the 2002 Russia Cup). He was also the first man to perform the Bielmann spin.

In early 2013 he had intervertebral disk replacement surgery. Although doctors advised that he should retire from skating, instead he made a full recovery and returned to competition.

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