Updated: Friday, 14 February 2014 04:07 | By Agence France-Presse

Plushenko retires in Sochi stunner, Bjoerndalen flops

Russian skating icon Yevgeny Plushenko dramatically announced his retirement on Thursday after withdrawing from the Winter Olympics with a back injury, leaving a nation stunned and questions asked over his original selection.


Plushenko retires in Sochi stunner, Bjoerndalen flops

Yevgeny Plushenko announces to the judges his withdrawal from the Men's Figure Skating Short Program at the Iceberg Skating Palace on February 13, 2014 - by Jung Yeon-He

The two-time gold medallist had warmed up at the Iceberg arena for the men's short programme as he began his campaign for a fifth medal and the accolade of the most successful ever Olympic figure skater.

But he felt his long-standing back injury as he gingerly attempted a series of jumps, even stumbling at one stage.

After consulting his coach, the 31-year-old gave up on his Sochi dream and waved an emotional farewell to a stunned crowd.

"Amateur sport is finished for me. Maybe not in the way that I wanted. But I leave with a gold medal, that is also great," he told Russia's Channel One.

"I am sorry for my fans and for everybody, but I tried till the end. I almost cried. It's hard, believe me. I am very disappointed. But I tried to do my best."

Plushenko had already won gold in Sochi in the new team event for his second Olympic title after taking the men's honours at the 2006 Turin Olympics. He was also a two-time silver medallist, in 2002 and 2010.

Despite the shock of his retirement, questions were being asked over the selection of a man who underwent back surgery last year, the latest in twelve operations in his career on his back and knees.

As Russia had only one men's berth in Sochi, the possibility of substituting Plushenko would only have been allowed on medical grounds, but the deadline for replacing injured skaters passed at 1000 a.m. local time (0600GMT) Monday.

If he had withdrawn earlier another Russian skater, such as 18-year-old national champion Maxim Kovtun, could have taken his place.

Plushenko's coach Alexei Mishin insisted there were no selfish motives.

- 'Nothing that wasn't fair play' -

"We didn't do anything that wasn't fair play," he said.

Asked if Plushenko would compete in another Olympics, Mishin quipped: "Not an Olympics, maybe a Paralympics".

In all six golds were up for grabs on Thursday, but 40-year-old Norwegian biathlon great Ole Einar Bjoerndalen missed out again on his bid to win a record 13th Winter Olympic medal.

He had equalled his compatriot Bjorn Daehlie's collection of 12 medals when he won gold in the men's 10km sprint but could only finish fourth in the pursuit.

On Thursday, he was way down in 34th place in the 20km individual as Frenchman Martin Fourcade claimed his second gold to add to his triumph in the 12.5km pursuit.

Fourcade became the first French athlete to win two golds at the same Winter Olympics since skier Jean-Claude Killy in 1968. 

"He's fantastic," Bjoerndalen said of Fourcade. "He's a great athlete, he's so strong but I'm glad for him because he's one of greatest ever."

Germany's Erik Lesser was second with Yevgeny Garanichev of Russia taking third.

With temperatures pushing a balmy 16 degrees Celsius at the sub-tropical venue, tweaks were made to the schedule with Friday's men's super-combined race brought forward to 06:00 GMT "in order to minimise the weather influence on the competition", said a Games official.

Of more pressing concern to organisers was an accident at the Sanki sliding centre where a track worker was left with both legs broken after being hit by a bobsleigh.

The man is believed to have been left with both legs broken.

- Stripped down to T-shirts -

The day's first medal contest resulted in a United States sweep in men's freestyle slopestyle with Joss Christensen seeing off compatriots Gus Kenworthy and Nicholas Goepper.

China's Li Jianrou steered clear of a three-skater pile-up to sprint to gold in the women's 500m short track while China later took a second gold when Zhang Hong powered to the women's 1,000m speed skating title.

Justyna Kowalczyk overcame an ankle injury to become the all time greatest Polish Winter Olympian when she destroyed Norway's stranglehold on the women's cross country events to take gold in the 10km classic.

Many competitors in the event stripped down to their T-shirts because of the spring-like temperatures.

Victory represented Kowalczyk's fifth Olympic medal.

Germany took the team relay luge gold to complete a four-title sweep of the sport.

In ice hockey, Sidney Crosby's defending champions Canada started their campaign with a 3-1 win over Norway while 2010 runners-up the United States routed Slovakia 7-1 and Russia beat Slovenia 5-2.

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