SOCHI, Russia — On Thursday night, the first great Russian star competed at the first Russian Winter Olympics. The eager crowd was disappointingly small at the Iceberg Skating Palace, but Evgeni Plushenko never needed a big audience. He could put on a show in a phone booth.
At 31, he possesses the hardware of an enduring figure skating champion — three Olympic medals and an untold number of screws in his back from operations. Only one skater has won more medals. Few have endured the same stress on the body for as many years as Plushenko, with his four-revolution jumps and impossible flexibility.
Still, there is a final Olympic performance to give in his home country, and Plushenko did not disappoint Thursday, finishing second in the short program of a team event being introduced here before the traditional skating schedule begins.
This was a classic Plushenko routine, long on drama, short on niceties beyond his jumping. Performing to tango music, he landed uncertainly on his triple axel, labored on his spins and, as usual, did not overly concern himself with elegant movement and footwork.
But he landed a quadruple-toeloop, triple-toeloop combination jump on a night when Patrick Chan, the reigning three-time world champion from Canada and Olympic favorite, could not.
And Plushenko never missed a chance to play to an audience that stood on its feet, chanted his name and waved the red, white and blue Russian flag. He blew a kiss during his routine, summoned applause with his hands and later gave the thumbs-up and signaled that he was No. 1.
In case anyone doubted his willingness to exhaust his remaining effort at his fourth Olympics, or his devotion to a waning career tempered by a dozen operations, he wore red rhinestones over his heart.
“It doesn’t matter what kind of result will be in the end,” Plushenko said. “I already win for myself.”
Ten countries are competing for gold, silver and bronze in the team event, which will conclude Saturday and Sunday and includes men’s, women’s, pairs and ice dancing competitions.
In the men’s short program Thursday, Yuzuru Hanyu, a Japanese teenager, finished first. Plushenko was second, while an awkward Chan took third. After the pairs short program, won by the Russian world champions and Olympic favorites, Maxim Trankov and Tatiana Volosozhar, Russia held first place with 19 points awarded on a 10-point sliding scale for each discipline. Canada was second with 17 points and China third with 15.
Any chance of a team gold for the United States, tied for fifth, seemed remote after Jeremy Abbott finished seventh in a disastrous men’s short program.
Before his performance, Plushenko seemed nervous, saying later the home support had left him shocked and somewhat dizzy.
“Concentrate,” he told himself. “Concentrate.”
Many had expected Plushenko to retire after winning a gold medal in 2006 and silvers in 2002 and 2010. But he campaigned to bring the Olympics to Sochi and politicked to gain Russia’s only men’s spot in these Games after finishing second at the Russian championships in December and skipping the European championships in January.
Russian officials chose Plushenko over Maxim Kovtun, the 18-year-old national champion who wilted at the Europeans and finished fifth. At a home Olympics, Russia does not want an embarrassing repeat of the 2010 Games in Vancouver, where it failed to win a gold medal in figure skating for the first time since 1960.
“One needs to have solid experience of top international competitions to aspire to win Olympic medals,” Plushenko said last month.
His practice routines had been spare but encouraging in recent days. A number of experts expected him to skate convincingly Thursday, or at least with great theater.
“He takes the stage like almost no one else,” said Kurt Browning, a former four-time world champion from Canada, who added that Plushenko might not be one of his favorite skaters, but he sure would not leave to get a sandwich when he’s skating.
When last seen at the Olympics, in 2010 in Vancouver, Plushenko finished second to Evan Lysacek of the United States and reacted bitterly to Lysacek’s lack of a quadruple jump.
“If the Olympic champion doesn’t know how to jump quad, I don’t know,” Plushenko, who prefers difficult tricks and innovation, said at the time. “Now it’s not figure skating. Now it’s dancing.”
To gain late entry into the Sochi Games, Plushenko reportedly had to persuade Russian skating officials of his worthiness with a performance behind closed doors.
Last fall, when Plushenko’s return was in doubt, Alexei Mishin, his coach, said in an interview: “He still has screws in his back; it’s not so simple to do the jumps, but he’s charged very powerful to be a skater. All his life was a struggle for himself. Nobody awarded him any medals for free, just for the hard work.”
As a boy in Russia’s Far East, Plushenko was susceptible to colds and pneumonia. He took up figure skating as a curative at age 4. His family moved to Volgograd, and when the Soviet Union collapsed, Plushenko’s rink became a showroom for an automobile dealership.
At 11, he moved to St. Petersburg to train with Mishin, who said the young Plushenko “looked like a cheap chicken: green blue, no fat, very ecological.”
Two decades later, Plushenko can win a fourth medal if his brittle body holds up in the long program in the team event. He is not a medal favorite in the singles competition, but his place in skating history is secure. Only Gillis Grafstrom of Sweden, who won gold in 1920, ’24 and ’28, and silver in 1932, has won four Olympic skating medals.
“Three medals in the Olympics, doesn’t that make you a legend?” Browning said of Plushenko. “And now he could win a fourth.”
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