SOCHI, Russia: Russia reeled from the shock retirement of figure skating superstar Yevgeny Plushenko on Friday as the grueling men’s super-combined ski event was set to take center stage at the Sochi Olympics.
Two-time gold medalist Plushenko withdrew injured from the men’s short program on Thursday (Friday in Manila), waving an emotional farewell to a stunned crowd before abruptly calling time on his illustrious career.
“Amateur sport is finished for me. Maybe not in the way that I wanted. But I leave with a gold medal, that is also great,” the 31-year-old icon told Russia’s Channel One.
“This is not how I wanted to end my career,” he said after pulling out with a back injury before he was due to compete.
The veteran had taken to the ice for the six-minute warm-up before the start of the event where he was bidding to become the first man to win five Olympic figure skating medals after already helping Russia to team gold earlier in the Games.
But with two minutes, 25 seconds to go, he tried a triple axel and stumbled out of it. The 2006 Olympic champion then skated around the rink holding his back before unsuccessfully trying the jump again.
Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko paid tribute to Plushenko.
“Zhenya carried out the task at the Olympics. The task was to win the team competition and it was won. The health of the sportsman comes first. He has a serious back injury,” he said.
In Plushenko’s absence, 19-year-old Japanese star Yuzuru Hanyu gave a stunning display to put him on the road to gold with a new world record score in the short program to open up a 3.93-point lead on three-time world champion Patrick Chan of Canada.
Ligety, Pinturault face off in slopes
On the slopes above Sochi on Friday, American world champion Ted Ligety of the United States and French young gun Alexis Pinturault will battle for gold alongside Croatian veteran Ivica Kostelic and defending champion Bode Miller.
The downhill element of the race will start earlier than planned at 10 a.m. (0600 GMT) due to the spring-like weather that has sent temperatures soaring in the mountains above Sochi.
The second run—a slalom—is taking place as planned at 3:30 p.m.
After Thursday’s training, racers warned that changeable snow conditions could throw up surprises.
“In these [warm]conditions, the course really changes a lot in an hour,” said veteran Miller, adding that the starting positions could have a huge bearing on the outcome.
With temperatures pushing a balmy 14 degrees Celsius (57 degrees Fahrenheit) in the mountains, some athletes taking part in the grueling women’s 10km cross-country race discarded their winter weather gear in favor of T-shirts.
International Olympics Committee spokesman Mark Adams said all events were taking place on schedule and there was no reason for alarm.
“For the time being—and it is always a constant battle with winter sports—we are relaxed but watch the situation,” he said.
Ice hockey big guns the United States, Canada and Russia all started their bid for Olympic gold on Thursday with wins.
In other action on Friday a strong Chinese team headed by Li Nina could dominate the women’s freestyle aerials although defending champion Lydia Lassila of Australia will have her sights set on a second triumph.
Britain’s Lizzy Yarnold is the hot favourite to succeed retired compatriot Amy Williams as women’s skeleton champion and there are medals up for grabs in the men’s skiathlon 15km classic and the women’s 15km biathlon.