A Khazakstani colleague told me an interesting addition to the story about Evgeni Plushenko, regarding his unfortunate departure from the Olympic figure-skating championships. It dovetails with the version of events that has been featured across the media/internet and indeed rings true.
You may be aware that Mr Plushenko had already brought Russia its first Olympic gold at Sochi, a set of games that have already made news for a variety of reasons – not all of them related to sport by any means. A mere four days after claiming his prize, this globally renowned skating athlete bowed out of the Sochi event completely, leaving a void at the top of Russia’s sporting endeavours and a chorus of controversy in the wake of his departure.
This is a sad, but not unexpected climax to a career that has seen award winning – even record breaking – performances coupled with the onward creep of troubling physical injury and surgical treatment on his knees and back. That’s twelve surgeries in all. Events came to a head last Thursday 13th February when his 15-year dominance of the sport ended during a pre-event warm-up session witnessed by a home crowd hoping to see the old magic flare across the ice once again.
With pain scything through his back, he consulted with his long-standing coach before returning centre stage to wave goodbye to the hushed auditorium. Then he left the ice and the Olympic spotlight – quite possibly for good. From an outsiders perspective it appears that fate, in its simplest language, had ultimately presented him with a stark choice: your career or your health; choose.
The vacant space left by his absence has been quickly filled with condemnation of his choice as contender at the Sochi event, magnified by the reality that there isn’t someone who can just slot into his Olympic role and carry on. It doesn’t work that way. Once chosen: you’re it, as it were.
In the wings, metaphorically speaking, stands Maxim Kovtun, the would-be contender who beat Plushenko in the Russian nationals and who at 18 is disconcertingly close to half the master’s age of 31. To the fury of many, the old guard chose their long-standing champion over the fire (and undoubted ability) of Kovtun’s youth.
Citing his international experience and impressive track record, Plushenko was chosen to carry Russia’s hopes into battle once again in what was no doubt planned to be a glorious swan-song to an already illustrious career. Unfortunately for Russia, it was a gamble that failed to pay off.
It would have only worked of course if either Plushenko or Kovtun had swept the board. Imagine for instance, the outcry if Kovtun had leap-frogged Russia’s long-standing hero and then lost.
So, my Khazakstani colleague tells me: the word at ground level is that Plushenko has failed Russia, let everyone down and outstayed his welcome. I’m told of out-and-out hostility towards him by the man in the street and ugly displays of anger beyond the measured words of criticism quoted in the media. This issue has now become a matter of Russian pride – a truly dangerous thing to mess with. (Hence, taking a little time to learn about the Russian language, history, cuisine and other aspects of life is a good idea whether you’re planning to visit or are just interested in the country.)
As someone with no dog in the fight, I am left wondering just what you have to do to maintain public support? A renowned career topped with four Olympic golds – not to mention the silvers and other accolades – is apparently not enough if you stumble at that last hurdle.