SOCHI, Russia — His time was over. Evgeni Plushenko was a creaking, 31-year-old Lada of a figure skater with a slipping transmission and busted shocks who likely would have hung up his costume if the Winter Games weren’t here and if the Motherland didn’t need him. A teenager had beaten him at the national championships in January and Plushenko had conceded his spot on the Olympic team.
Not so fast, said the federation, which insisted on waiting until after the European championships to make its decision. When Maxim Kovtun, billed as the country’s next star, fell apart there, Plushenko got the nod. And on Sunday night, with Vladimir Putin watching from the stands, Father Russia helped provide his country with its first gold medal of these Games at the Iceberg Skating Palace.
It was fitting that it came in one of the Motherland’s two hallmark sports, and since the populace didn’t have patience to wait until the final day to see whether the men’s hockey team would win (it hasn’t since 1992), the most meaningful gold needed to come in the new team event, where the nation that once ruled the sport as the Soviet Union wanted to prove that Russia could do nicely on its own.
“Russia will fight to the end,” declared ice dancer Elena Ilinykh after her teammates had piled up 75 points, outdistancing Canada by 10 and the United States by 15. “Russia is the best. Russian figure skating is coming back. That’s the message we want to send to the world.”
The rumor, proffered on Saturday by L’Equipe, the French sporting daily, from an anonymous Russian coach, was that Russia and the US had made a deal to cut the Canadians out of two gold medals, with the Yanks helping the Russians win the team event. To anyone that knew a loop from a lutz, that was ludicrous.
The Russians may be favored to win just one gold medal in the four individual disciplines (in pairs) but they clearly have the best team across the board. Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov are the world pairs titlists. Julia Lipnitskaia is the European women’s champion. Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev are global dance medalists.
And while Plushenko may have a renovated back and Tin Man knees, he’s still a three-time Olympic medalist who’d been on the big stage often enough that he wouldn’t blow a gasket. “I was actually quite worried — not for myself, but for the other guys,” he said before the finale. “They are all very strong skaters but some of them were skating for the first time [at the Olympics], so I was a little nervous for them.”
Not that Plushenko himself hadn’t felt butterflies before Thursday’s short program. “It was so difficult to skate, so difficult to calm down, with applause from here, from there, from behind, from everywhere,” he said that night. “It was like I was knocked down.”
The squeeze was off on Sunday. Russia had a 6-point lead on Canada and everybody else was using their backup guy, with the Canadians subbing Kevin Reynolds for three-time world champ Patrick Chan, the Japanese putting Tatsuki Machida in for short program victor Yuzuru Hanyu, and the Americans replacing bedeviled Jeremy Abbott with Jason Brown, who does no quadruple jumps.
So Plushenko figured that he could get away with his “B” game, which he did, by a whisker over Reynolds. Instead of a quadruple-triple-toe combination and another quad, he did just a solo. And after he tweaked his back going for a triple salchow, Plushenko decided to play it safe and doubled his loop and axel. Then he sat back and watched the 15-year-old Lipnitskaia, the youngest female skating gold medalist in 78 years, dispose of Gracie Gold to wrap things up. “I love being first,” proclaimed Plushenko, whose other gold medal came in 2006 in Turin.
It’s unlikely that he’ll collect another, that his back will hold up for four programs across nine days. But if Plushenko can just make the podium, he’ll surpass Sweden’s Gillis Grafstrom, who won three golds and a silver between 1920 and 1932, for the most Olympic medals by a figure skater. That doesn’t mean that he’ll call it a career, though. Pyeongchang and a fifth Games is only a quadrennium away. “I’ll just be 35 years old,” Plushenko mused. “No one has ever done it before. Why not? Perhaps I should try. I don’t know.”
Plushenko doesn’t need more hardware to secure his legacy as his country’s greatest male skater (co-cauldron lighter Irina Rodnina is the undisputed female). But he likely wouldn’t object to a statue.
There’s one of Nikolai Panin, Russia’s first skating gold medalist from the 1908 Summer Games, in the lobby of the Iceberg Skating Palace. Panin, who won in special figures, didn’t finish the singles event. Plushenko didn’t do figures. Between them is the ultimate Olympic champion.
John Powers can be reached at email@example.com.