By JIM HEINTZ
2014-01-31 11:22 PM
MOSCOW (AP) -- Evgeni Plushenko's sparkly outfits on the ice don't hide the mystery surrounding him as he heads for the Sochi Olympics.
Although he's one of the world's predominant figure skaters, with an Olympic gold and two silvers to his name, Plushenko has barely been seen in competition for the past year. The performance that won him Russia's sole berth in the men's singles was done behind closed doors.
Since he withdrew from the 2013 European Championships after the short program with back problems that later required surgery, his only public skates were at a second-tier competition in Riga, Latvia, and at the Russian nationals.
The Riga competition, the Volvo Cup, gave Plushenko the necessary technical element scores to qualify for the Olympics, and many thought that essentially booked him a ticket to Sochi. But then he pulled out of the Russian leg of the Grand Prix series with a knee problem and a month later ended up second at the nationals behind rising star Maxim Kovtun.
It was a shock to devoted fans who wanted to see him make a career-capping performance in his homeland and a chance to avenge his controversial loss to Evan Lysacek in Vancouver. Plushenko looked for a compromise, suggesting he'd be happy to go to Sochi as Russia's male entry in the team skating event and leave the singles glory to Kovtun, but officials soon informed him that was against the rules.
Since he wasn't entered in the European Championships, his last chance to prove himself was an improvised arrangement - a "test skate" behind closed doors, watched only by a panel of experts. His performance there reportedly showed him back to his old form, including two quads. Coupled with Kovtun's fifth-place showing at the Europeans, Plushenko easily won the Sochi slot.
It may have been a foregone conclusion, because there was already considerable sentiment that he should go no matter what shape he was in. Plushenko is a major sports hero in Russia, stunning audiences with his strength, spark and humor as the rest of Russia's best male skaters went into retirement and the next generation showed only fitful bursts of talent.
He even gets props from hockey players who probably wouldn't be caught dead trying the leg-behind-head Biellmann spin that long was Plushenko's trademark. Washington Capitals captain Alexander Ovechkin supported his going to Sochi.
"He can bring the Russian team a medal - gold, God willing," Ovechkin said.
The back-channel choice brought little dispute, unlike the controversial choices of Ashley Wagner and Daisuke Takahashi despite disappointing showings in the U.S. and Japanese nationals. As with those skaters, the argument is that Plushenko's long experience in international competition means he can withstand the pressure of the world watching.
If Plushenko ever gets the jitters, he doesn't show it on the ice. Instead, he projects a confidence that can seem almost like a cocky adolescent's.
That spills over into arrogance and petulance occasionally, as in Vancouver when he stepped onto the winner's dais before going to the silver position, emphasizing that he thought he should have won. Plushenko was angered that Lysacek got the gold despite not performing a single quad jump.
At 31, Plushenko is at the verge of geriatric for a figure skater and his overall condition is still in doubt.
Sending him to the Olympics is a calculated risk, Russia's sports minister admits.
"But what is better," Vitaly Mutko told R-Sport, "just to go and give a worthy performance or to take a risk and taste the champagne."