It’s never easy to watch the end of an athlete’s career happen on live television. In the case of Russia’s Evgeni Plushenko, the spinal injury that forced the champion figure skater’s departure from the Sochi Olympics appeared excrutiating, but it was only the beginning of the damage. A hail of insults from Russian politicians, athletes, and commentators rained down on Plushenko, who had been considered a hero after winning a gold medal just days before.
In a tale of two Olympics, Plushenko helped Russia win its first 2014 gold medal in the team figure skating event at the start of the Sochi Winter Games. The 31-year-old Plushenko beat out 18-year-old rival Maxim Kovtun to win the honor of sole male figure skater on the Russian team. Highly decorated with one gold and two silver medals in previous Olympic competitions, Plushenko was considered to have an advantage over Kovtun in experience and poise.
Everything came crashing down when Plushenko was forced to withdraw from individual competition on February 13 due to a spinal injury during his warmups. Telling reporters “it felt like a knife in my back,” Plushenko awoke on Valentine’s Day to find the knife plunged in deeper by insults from various sources. The Toronto Sun reports Plushenko was referred to as an “invalid” by one Russian politician while other celebrated Russian athletes publicly questioned Plushenko’s character.
According to the Associated Press, former Olympic medalist Alexei Yagudin said he was hoping for “people who go to the end” to represent Russia at the Olympics, while soccer stay Ruslan Nugmatullin suggested older athletes “should go when it’s time.” Others hinted at post-Olympics fallout ahead.
“After Sochi, the federation will have to answer for its choice,” the Associated Press reports Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a nationalist politician, told one Russian news agency. In comments reported by the Toronto Sun, Zhirinovsky went even further. “Maxim Kovtun is shoved aside and this invalid has brought shame upon us,” he said in reference to Plushenko.
Plushenko’s departure from the February 13 event was heartbreaking for fans in the auditorium and for figure skating aficionados around the world. The three-time medalist told NBC’s correspondent at Sochi he had to hold back tears when he realized he could not compete in the event. Critics insist he should have recognized his vulnerability beforehand and stepped aside for the younger Kovtun to compete.
But would Russia have won the gold medal in the team event had Plushenko not participated? Alexei Mishin, who is Plushenko’s coach, tried to remind the critics of the brilliant career the skater had. ”This is one incident in 20 years when he was not successful,” Mishin told Fox Sports. “Please be positive to him and respect him.” In sports, it’s a sad but familiar refrain often heard at the end of an aging athlete’s career.