SOCHI, Russia — Realizing it was over for him, Evgeni Plushenko held his hands out, as if asking the crowd to forgive him.
No apologies necessary.
Plushenko’s career ended in pain Thursday night when he withdrew from the men’s short program at the Sochi Olympics, then retired. Many of his peers say he should be remembered for his achievements, even if things ended on a sour note because his withdrawal left Russia without a skater in the event.
“His longevity was unbelievable, on a par with the greats of so many sports, not just figure skating,” said Evan Lysacek, who beat Plushenko for the gold medal four years ago in Vancouver. “He was intense and always a tough competitor. I was so impressed that he stuck by this comeback and the way he handled the team competition and was able to win a gold medal. I don’t think he’s pleased this is the way for his career to end, but the pain was just too much.”
Plushenko has been a force on the world scene since the turn of the century. His résumé includes a collection of medals in four Olympics – gold in 2006 and 2014, silver in 2002 and 2010 – the only modern era figure skater to do so. He won three world titles and seven European championships.
And Plushenko was the skater to beat for a decade, rivaling only Michelle Kwan in the women’s field in recent years.
After the Vancouver Games, Plushenko said his “dream” was to skate for Russia in the Sochi Olympics. He did so, helping it to the first team gold medal. When his back gave out and he skated away, some of his countrymen criticized him. They said he should have dropped out after the team competition so that a younger Russian could replace him.
Nonsense, says 1988 Olympic champ Brian Boitano.
“As time goes by, people will only remember his great performances and how he represented his country and loved his country,” Boitano said. “People will revere him for skating with all the physical limitations he overcame in order to compete.
“Ultimately, they cannot criticize him because he did not put himself on the team. His country sent him. He was making one last push to skate in an Olympic event. It’s what athletes do, but there is a breaking point.”
Plushenko appeared broken several times in his career, particularly since Vancouver. That “dream” of competing at Sochi seemed like a farce only weeks ago when he lost in the Russian nationals to Maxim Kovtun.
But when Kovtun struggled at Euros, the Russian federation ordered the 31-year-old veteran to show his stuff in a tryout. Plushenko convinced them he was the better choice for Sochi.
Then he was second in the team short program and won the men’s free skate portion on the way to gold.
That should be more than enough to satisfy anyone, 1984 Olympic champion Scott Hamilton said.
“He has a legacy and a level of excellence never imagined in modern skating,” Hamilton said. “To be a medalist in three straight Olympics is an incredible accomplishment. Add onto those wins his contributions to the very first team event ... will cement his place in history as a champion like no other. He’s a hero and I congratulate him on what he has given to all of us who love this sport.”
Plushenko recognized there would be criticism of his dropping out and didn’t back away from the topic Thursday night.
“Some people say we had this plan from the very beginning, but we did not,” he said. “We were going to go to the end. If I really wished to withdraw after the team event, I would have.”
Plushenko will continue to skate in ice shows, just as Lysacek, Hamilton, Boitano and four-time world champion Kurt Browning did. He’ll receive more standing ovations, if not any more medals.
Browning says that should be more than enough for everyone.
“It is unrealistic and hard to fathom the longevity of his career,” Browning said. “I skated and won four world championships, but they were in a tight span. He skated and won (medals) in four Olympics. There are four Christmases between each of those.
“That’s why what he has achieved is unbelievable. There should be no (criticism), and if there is, well, it means nothing. It’s impossible for a kitten to leave scratch marks on the Titanic.”