THIS should be the Russian national anthem.
Yevgeny Plushenko faces criticism after pulling out in Sochi
Feb 15, 6:45am EST
SOCHI, Russia — Four days after being praised as a hero for helping Russia win its first gold at the Sochi Olympics, Yevgeny Plushenko on Friday was taking criticism for dropping out of the men's figure skating.
Plushenko had just one big backer Friday: Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Plushenko's strong performance in the team event brought wide accolades for his determination to overcome injury. But on Thursday he withdrew before the men's short program, complaining of severe spinal pain during the warmup.
Plushenko was Russia's only men singles skater in Sochi. He won the slot in a closed exhibition skate that cut out Maxim Kovtun, who beat him in the Russian nationals.
Among his critics was longtime rival Alexei Yagudin, the 2002 Olympic gold medalist. He told the R-Sport news agency he supports "people who go to the end."
"I think Zhenya will understand my words," he said, using the familiar version of Plushenko's name. "We always competed through the pain."
The choice of Plushenko as the sole Russian man was debatable. Although he was the dominant skater the past 15 years, with an Olympic gold and two silvers before coming to Sochi, he is 31 years old and underwent back surgery a year ago. When he was selected, advocates argued his long international experience made him a stronger choice than the 18-year-old Kovtun.
But that came under sharp questioning Friday.
"You should go when it's time," Ruslan Nugmatullin, a former Russian national soccer goalkeeper said on Twitter. "Kovtun earned the right to participate in Sochi 2014."
Alexei Urmanov, the 1994 Olympic gold-medal winner, suggested that Plushenko's hubris backfired.
"It's on the conscience of Zhenya, the team and the federation," he was quoted by R-Sport.
Putin, who has made the Sochi Olympics a personal project, wouldn't join the Plushenko-bashing.
"He performed in the team event and showed his best result," Putin said, according to Russian news agencies. "He really does have a big problem with his health; he has had several operations."
To some politicians, Plushenko's withdrawal was a blow to Russia's national pride.
"Perform through the pain for the honor of the country," Igor Lebedev, a parliament member from the nationalist Liberal Democrats, said on Twitter.
Elena Vaitsekhovskaya, the figure skating correspondent for Russia's Sport-Express newspaper, seemed weary not only of the intrigue behind Plushenko's selection but also of the appearances of his flamboyant wife, Yana Rudkovskaya, in the mixed zone to support him.
"All of this was reminiscent of an incompetently directed stage show," she wrote. "It became harder and harder to sympathize with the athlete."
"The one-man show in Sochi has concluded. Real sport has begun," she said in the newspaper's Friday edition.
But more complaints may still come.
"After Sochi, the federation will have to answer for its choice," nationalist lawmaker Vladimir Zhirinovsky said.
I can't really say that I disagree with the critics. I mean, I think I've made my opinion of Plushenko pretty clear over the last four years: I don't like the guy. I think he's arrogant and highly overrated. I don't think he's a good ambassador for the sport. So I completely understand where this criticism is coming from, and I'll freely admit that some of them (most particularly Elena Vaitsekhovskaya) made some very good points.
With that said, I will never, ever criticize an athlete--ANY athlete--for withdrawing from competition due to injury. When all is said and done, no one but the athlete knows how he feels, so ultimately, no one but the athlete is qualified to judge whether or not he is able to compete.
Moreover, there's no doubt in my mind that Plushenko's pain was genuine. His pain, evident from the look in his eyes and his antalgic movement as he left the ice, was palpable to me, so much so that watching it again makes me want to cry. Me.
And I won't comment on the way the Russian skating union chooses its Olympic participants. Their system is very, very different from ours.[*](Though our system certainly isn't perfect; a system that has, over the course of the last twenty years, allowed both Tonya Harding and Ashley Wagner to represent the United States in the Olympics clearly has some SERIOUS flaws.)
Nevertheless, while I'm not saying that Plushenko deserves all this criticism, I do think that he is reaping what he has sown. He's been almost as well known for his trash-talking as he has for his skating, as I've thoroughly documented with regard to the Vancouver Games. What the article above does not mention when it quotes Alexei Yagudin is that Yagudin and Plushenko had a bitter, even VICIOUS rivalry when they competed against each other. Plushenko came in second to Yagudin during the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City, and personally, I think it has rankled him ever since.[*](I also think that a lot of the vitriol he spewed against Evan Lysacek in 2010 was really left over from that second-place finish to Yagudin in 2002; he probably knew that an American skater would be a more acceptable target for the Russian fans' outrage.) Between the two of them, I much prefer Yagudin; thus, I'm a little disappointed in him for kicking a guy when he's down. That doesn't seem very sportsmanlike to me, and I would hope that Yagudin would be better than that. On the other hand, given what I know about their history, I can't really blame him either.
Moreover, while I abhor Vladimir Putin and the things he stands for, I can't fault him for loyalty in this scenario. Granted, that loyalty is probably in large part self-motivated; Plushenko is still a popular Russian sports figure, after all, and Putin wouldn't want to risk him speaking out against the administration. Still, there's something to be said for a man who stands by a friend when public opinion turns against him.
I know as well as anyone that figure skating and the Olympics press a lot of emotional buttons for people, but I would much prefer it if these Russians would redirect their ire and speak out about something that really matters in the world. On the other hand, given Plushenko's buddy-buddy relationship with Putin, maybe they think that by criticizing Plushenko they feel that they're criticizing Putin by proxy? I don't know; maybe I'm just reading too much into it and projecting my own values onto them, which probably isn't entirely fair.
I just hate it when figure skating and politics intersect like that.