When I pulled up my Facebook page this morning after work, I didn’t entirely expect to find what I found. Evgeni Plushenko has withdrawn from the men’s figure skating competition in Sochi. He was Russia’s only representative, so the home crowd was left unable to root for the home team.
There has been a surprising amount of animosity circulating around how the games have been covered in the media—just before the opening act, the @SochiProblems Twitter account had amassed about a quarter million followers basically riding a wave of Russia-shaming over the state of the journalists’ accommodations in this year’s Olympic capital. Then, on the American side, came a reverse tide of Americans shaming Americans over Ugly American Syndrome and russophobia—a reaction I think was merited, though, like #SochiProblems had been before it, only addressed part of the problem.
The reason Zhenya withdrew was due to injuries. As a figure skater myself, I know exactly how difficult and how physically taxing the sport can be; skaters are often moving over the surface at 20-30 mph during their performances, and falling from that speed into a unnatural contortion often results in injuries that would make a football player blush. I’ve come out relatively scot-free; very few of my injuries have been serious enough to warrant medical attention. Plushenko, on the other hand, has had back surgery 12 times, as well as at least one each of groin and knee surgeries, and countless more injuries on top of that. Y’all need to understand what this does to the human body is absolutely astounding. What’s more, the fact skating is an indoor sport creates a long and intense season that is never entirely countered with an off-season, if only due to ever-increasing demands for skaters to step up their games. I never competed because I never seriously pursued getting up at 4 in the morning to practice until 1 in the afternoon and then somehow balance school with that. The professional level requires more.
What this meant was that by the time competition started, he was 31 (old for a skater – the injuries seem to age your body prematurely), and his body was failing. Probably he shouldn’t have competed – I wonder if the Vancouver saga with Evan Lysacek had anything to do with the fact he was even attempting to compete in these games. If he hadn’t competed, he still would have received a hero’s welcome in Sochi. Evgeni Plushenko is the best figure skater that has ever lived, and he remains the only one with a legacy of consistently landing the world’s hardest jump in competition.
Now think about it. Legendary skater with a fragile body is given Russia’s only seat in the men’s competition. Evan Lysacek tweeted a picture of what the stadium looked like after he withdrew – half the crowd just left. And I don’t blame them – they came to see a legend and the legend couldn’t perform. Not only does this remind me of the “malicious glee” of the #SochiProblems journalists, it reminds me to a very large extent of the Sochi games as a whole. This was, first and foremost, an image project for Vladimir Putin; like Russia’s inaugural gold in the team skating event, it’s going over fairly well, better than many would have expected. But the image is built on a legacy that just isn’t what it used to be. And that, of course, brings us back to the reverse tide that welled up against the disrespectful Twitter account, and makes us have to wonder why Sochi wasn’t ready for the games.
Russia is not a broken state. Far from it. It is also not a perfect state; it is farther yet from that. But my biggest question at these games is what happens next. The fact Sochi wasn’t ready for the games probably won’t matter in three weeks, or even in three years – Sochi will probably never again have as many tourists as it has right now, and Olympic venues (even ones capable of being broken down and put elsewhere, like several of these are) have a legacy of falling into disuse and disrepair once the spectacle is over. What’s more, the Olympics are currently serving as a distraction for a host of other world issues – will we really just wake up and resume activity once all of this is over?
Plushenko is facing a lot of hostility at home for withdrawing. Think of it another way – your country is slated to host the games and suddenly finds itself unable to do so, so it cancels the whole thing. Exaggeration, yes. But this is far from over – in skating alone, Russia already has gold (and silver) in pairs and will probably take gold in the women’s event next week. That, too, provides a good snapshot of how these events are going. The catastrophe some were hoping for hasn’t happened yet, and barring terrorist attacks (a legitimate threat from the neighbouring North Caucasus), it probably won’t. But the “what next” question doesn’t go away, and skating nerds like me are left asking whether it was pressure or pride that lead to Evgeni Plushenko attempting to compete in the first place.