SOCHI, Russia — Russia’s flamboyant figure skater Yevgeny Plushenko pulled out of the Winter Olympics with an injury on Thursday in a shock twist that immediately deflated home fans pumped up by an opening victory for their beloved men’s ice hockey team.
At the Iceberg Skating Palace, there was disbelief when the announcement came over the public address system that the 31-year-old would not compete in the men’s individual figure skating event after he injured himself during his warmup.
The news came just seconds before Plushenko was due to start his short program, and left a stunned audience wondering if they had witnessed the end of a glittering career.
Plushenko, a controversial selection for the Games because of the lack of competitive action in the build-up, won his fourth Olympic medal on Sunday when he helped Russia triumph in the inaugural team competition.
But during his warmup he repeatedly clutched his back.
“I came out for the warm-up… and in the first triple Axel I stepped out and felt like I had a knife in my back,” he told reporters.
A few hundred meters away at the futuristic Bolshoy Ice Dome, the mood could not have been more different.
More than 10,000 flag-waving Russian fans roared the men in red to a somewhat labored 5-2 win over Slovenia, underlining the sport’s popularity in Russia and how dearly the home nation would love to win the final held on the last day of the Games.
As ice hockey mania swept Sochi, the United States laid down a marker by thumping Slovakia 7-1, and Canada opened the defence of their title against Norway with a 3-1 victory.
The news of Plushenko’s withdrawal, on the sixth full day of competition, took some of the gloss off a day when six medals were decided.
Slushy snow prevails
In the mountains, Joss Christensen of the United States won the inaugural men’s freestyle skiing slopestyle.
Gus Kenworthy took silver and Nick Goepper the bronze in a U.S. podium sweep, taking pressure off a team that some American media had begun to question as it languished down the medals leaderboard.
“I am shocked. I am stoked to be up here with my friends. America, we did it!” said Christensen, after another bumper crowd at the Extreme Park saw skiers push their acrobatic routines to the limits.
In the women’s cross-country 10km classic, several athletes wore sleeveless tops as temperatures touched 13C in bright sunshine and contestants complained of tough conditions.
Poland’s Justyna Kowalczyk powered to victory, but Russian Natalia Zhukova, who finished seventh, told reporters: “It’s the first time of my life I’ve raced in such warm weather.”
In the latest weather-related disruption, practice for the men’s freestyle skiing aerials event was cancelled because of unseasonably high temperatures.
Back in Sochi, Li Jianrou avoided an early pileup to win the women’s 500-meter short-track speed skating, extending China’s winning streak at the distance to a fourth Winter Games.
The 27-year-old first-time Olympian described it as “a miracle” while Britain’s Christie Elise left the rink in tears after being relegated from second place to eighth after causing a crash on the first bend which saw three of the four finalists fall.
Compatriot Zhang Hong claimed the women’s 1,000m speed skating title at the Adler Arena, beating prerace favorites Heather Richardson and Brittany Bowe of the United States.
In the sliding disciplines, a track worker was struck by a bobsleigh and suffered two broken legs during a practice session, IOC President Thomas Bach told Reuters.
In the last event of the day, the inaugural team relay went to luge powerhouse Germany, making it a clean sweep of all four luge gold medals at the Sochi Olympics.
Germany are top of the medals table with seven golds, ahead of Canada, Norway, the Netherlands and the United States, all on four. Russia are seventh with two.