Russia questions Plushenko decision after 'tragic' exit
Russia's Yevgeny Plushenko takes part in a warm-up during the figure skating short program at the Sochi Winter Olympics on February 13, 2014 - by Yuri Kadobnov
Plushenko's withdrawal, which prompted him to call time on his illustrious career, means that the Sochi Games are the first since Sarajevo 1984 that the USSR or post-Soviet Russia has no medal in the mens singles event.
Russian media were unanimous in expressing sympathy for the 31-year-old, who took to the ice to skate in the men's short programme but injured his back in the warm-up.
But there were also acute questions as to why the fragile veteran had not pulled out of the Olympics after winning gold in the team competition, which would have allowed Russia to field a replacement.
"The great career of our skater ended in a genuine human tragedy," said the Sovietsky Sport daily on its front page. It quoted a tearful Plushenko as saying: "I ask forgiveness from my fans."
The withdrawal of Plushenko, who won men's figure skating gold at the 2006 Turin Games, was met with horrified gasps from the crowd many of whom promptly left the venue.
"It was a lamentable spectacle," Russian figure skating legend and three-time Olympic gold medallist Irina Rodnina told Sovietsky Sport. "The festive atmosphere vanished the moment Plushenko left."
His departure was also highly controversial given the debate that preceded his selection over his younger rival, the Russian champion Maxim Kovtun, 18.
"What was the need to do all of this, depriving not only Maxim Kovtun of his chance to perform at the Games but also the entire country of having a representative in the final?" asked the Sport Express daily.
But it added that "while we understood there was practically no chance of the veteran pulling off this adventure, all the more we wanted to see a miracle".
'Plushenko asked to withdraw'
According to a report by pro-Kremlin NTV television, Plushenko had indeed two days before his performance in the individual asked to be withdrawn due to his injury.
In a chaotic sequence of events, the Russian Skating Federation then turned to Kovtun but could not find him. The federation turned again to Plushenko, NTV said. The federation denied the report.
The president of Russia's figure skating federation, Alexander Gorshkov, told the Izvestia daily that Plushenko was leaving the Olympics a "hero" after returning from back surgery.
"Yevgeny brought a huge contribution to the victory of the Russian team in the team competition and this makes him a true hero," he said.
But it remained a mystery why Plushenko had not bowed out with his honour -- and his back -- intact after the team glory. Some even alleged on Twitter that the whole drama had been staged and he never intended to compete.
Plushenko, who helped Russia win the Eurovision song contest in 2008, transcends his status as a figure skater and is one of the country's biggest celebrities.
The maverick head of the nationalist Liberal Democrat Party (LDPR), one of four parties represented in the Russian parliament, whipped up a huge controversy by describing Plushenko as an invalid who should never have been allowed to perform.
"This is not a house for the sick it is the Olympic Games!," LDPR leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky told Sovietsky Sport, adding that athletes should be forbidden from competing at more than three Games.
Adding fuel to the fire in an interview with the Russian News Service, he also called Plushenko's high profile producer wife Yana Rudkovskaya a "witch" who was taking her husband "to a wheelchair."
"Until now, I respected Vladimir Zhirinovsky, once I was even in his party," Rudkovskaya spat back.
The Moskovskiy Komsomolets daily also rushed to the defence of Plushenko. "If one of the protagonists one day writes in their memoirs that the whole thing was a game, then Plushenko is a great actor."