Updated: Tuesday, 31 December 2013 02:58 | By Agence France-Presse

Tough choice for Russia after Plushenko flop

Russian figure skating icon Evgeni Plushenko's failure to win his 11th national title last week left the skating selectors with a huge headache over who to choose as the country's representative in men's skating at the 2014 Olympics.

Tough choice for Russia after Plushenko flop

Evgeni Plushenko of Russia performs during the men's short program at the European Figure Skating Championships in Zagreb on January 24, 2013

The International Skaters Union (ISU) regulations state clearly that the winner of the Olympic qualification -- in this case the Russian national championships -- should represent the country at the Olympic team tournament, which will make its debut at Sochi Games.

Russia has currently only one place in men's skating at the Olympics, which by default should be taken by the nationals winner -- the 18-year-old Maxim Kovtun, who leapfrogged Plushenko with a better performance of the free routine to grab his first domestic title.

However, recent comments by Russian figure skating federation officials and Plushenko himself showed the intention to install the 2006 Olympic champion as the country's men's skater in the team event, which will precede the individual competitions at Sochi.

"I think that I will select the team event and cede my spot in the men's competition to a young athlete," Plushenko was quoted as saying after the Russian Championships in Sochi.

"It will definitely satisfy my ambitions. I have a literal perception of the existing situation and will be happy to perform for Russia in the team event. I think we (Russian team) have fair chances to win gold in Sochi."

"I have enough time to improve the execution of my free programme up to a serious competitive level as I understand clearly what exactly I need to improve."

Taking a risk on Kovtun?

But Plushenko's disastrous performance of his free routine at the nationals has put his current competitive abilities under serious doubt.

The 31-year-old two-time Olympic silver medallist, who underwent serious spinal surgery this summer, has blamed lack of competitive practice this season and his excessive nervousness for his failure in the free programme. 

But with no guarantee that he will manage to avoid a repetition of that flop, and just over a month remaining before the start of the Olympic figure skating tournament, Plushenko's selection is far from a foregone conclusion.

The general manager and former chief of the Russian figure skating federation, Valentin Piseyev, said that the sport's ruling body will finalise the men's skater selection for the Winter Olympics in February following the European championships, which take place in Budapest, Hungary, from January 15-19.

"The final decision on who will be the main representative at Sochi and who will be the reserve will be taken after the European championships," Piseyev said.

"We need to wait and see how Kovtun performs at Budapest and what level of readiness Plushenko reaches at that moment.

"Making the decision, we shall also take into consideration the fact that we will be unable to make any substitutions in the men's sections of the team tournament and our skater would have to perform in both short and free skating. 

"Otherwise our team will suffer a serious points loss."

Choosing the teenage Kovtun, who has little experience of participating in major international tournaments could also be a risk.

However, the head of the Russian figure skating federation Alexander Gorshkov seems to be ready to take responsibility for making the choice.

"In the last year Maxim (Kovtun) has made a serious leap forwards in quality," Gorshkov said. "He's a true sportsman and I hope he will continue his growth despite the lack of experience.

"Meanwhile, Plushenko is a true icon of men's figure skating and an extremely courageous athlete. And when he says that he's ready to compete I believe we can trust his words without doubt.

"We still have time to finalise our choice. And I believe we (the federation) will have enough wisdom to make the right choice."

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