SOCHI 2014 FEBRUARY 13, 2014
Once again, just as I predicted, Evgeni Plushenko is kicking up scandal at the Olympics.
Just minutes before the men's figure skating competition was scheduled to start, Plushenko has pulled out, citing, yup, his back. At yesterday's practice, "he tried two jumps, and two jumps failed," his wife and manager Yana Rudkovskaya told me. Video and photos from the practice show Plushenko almost falling, doubling over, and wincing in pain. "He could've taken strong painkillers, but he didn't because they make his legs give out." It was a tough decision to make, Rudkovskaya says, but ultimately, Rudkovskaya, Plushenko and his coach decided that this was the end. "I'm also in shock," Rudkovskaya said, "but if he'd skated, it could've ended very badly for him." His coach told TIME that a bad fall could've resulted in paralysis. "You can't fight pain and your competitors at the same time," Rudkovskaya says. This, she says, is the end of her husband's competitive career, and she is worried that there won't be a recovery.
Which leads to the quesiton: why in the hell was Plushenko allowed to compete in the first place? It's a question that Russian fans are asking themselves, taking to Twitter to express their outrage.
There's a reason people call Russian figure skater Evgeni Plushenko "old man": he's an old man. He is 31, and skaters usually bow out gracefully by then. Consider, for example, Tatyana Volosozhar who snagged gold in pairs skating last night. Well, her partner last night, Maksim Trankov, was only her partner because previous partner and boyfriend bowed out after the Vancouver Olympics because he was too old. How old? 31.
On top of his age, Plushenko had had 13 operations, including the most recent: a back operation less than a year ago that left a whole bunch of screws in his back. And yet, in closed door meetings, Plushenko pushed his way onto the Russian Olympic figure skating team, shoving the 18-year-old Maxim Kovtun out.
In fairness to Plushenko, he did help the Russian skating team win gold this weekend and Kovtun is not the most even skater. He won the Russian championships last year, then sank to 17th in the European championships. Still, he would have at least competed tonight, rather than dramatically pulling out.
Some Russians are wondering if this isn't just a symptom of Putin's Russia, where connections and closeness to the power elite guarantee you positions and privileges that you might not otherwise land. As I wrote in my cover story last week, this is why many younger, ambitious Russians feel that they're suffocating: the old men at the top just won't let go of their thrones and let the young'uns take a stab at things. "This is what we call, is there a path for young people, or like the vertical of power," one Russian tweeted tonight, referring to the Putinist power structure, referred to as the "vertical." "People don't rotate out until they utter the words, 'I'm tired, I'm leaving.'" (This is what then-old man Boris Yeltsin said before handing power over to Vladimir Putin.)
And yet, sports minister and corruptioneer extraordinaire Vitaly Mutko made sure to take a swipe at Kovtun. In response to a question about Plushenko and his health, Mutko punched at Kovtun: "And Kovtun, by the way, wasn't ready."
If I were Kovtun, I would apply for citizenship in a country where I could compete and where the authorities didn't shit all over me in public. Which is what biathalon star Anastasia Kuzmina did, just winning gold for Slovakia while the Russians failed.
New Republic Senior Editor Julia Ioffe will be writing dispatches from Russia for the duration of the Olympics. For the entire collection of her pieces, click here.