Yevgeny Plushenko, revered and divisive, ends ‘legendary’ career

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SOCHI, Russia – Without skating a single moment Thursday night at the Iceberg Skating Palace, Yevgeny Plushenko was once again the talk of Sochi. Actually, the talk of the Olympic sporting world.

The 31-year-old Russian made a dramatic exit from the sport in the men’s short program – skating to the boards and taking his name out of contention with referee Mona Jonsson – effectively ending a 16-year career that some call the greatest of all time.

Just a boy, Plushenko debuted at Russian Nationals at age 13 in 1996 with an awkward haircut and the kind of talent that – even in a country with a storied figure skating past – had the eyes of those inside the sport lighting up.

“He was doing things that no one had really seen before,” said Paul Wylie, the 1992 Olympic silver medalist. “He was doing a Beilman when he was 15 and just whipping off triple Axels and starting the quad so early. He was a wunderkind.”

VIDEO: Inside Plushenko’s decision to withdraw

There really is no wondering why he is so revered: 2002 Olympic silver medalist, 2006 gold medalist, 2010 silver medalist, 2014 team gold medalist, three World Championships golds, seven European Championships titles and 10 consecutive Russian National Championships crowns, a streak snapped this year against teenager Maksim Kovtun.

The melodrama leading up to the Olympics was oh-so-Plushenko: He didn’t skate the Grand Prix season as he struggled with injury, and then was second to Kovtun at Nationals in December. But Russia had just one spot in men’s singles for these Games, that spot eventually going to the elder statesman after a closed-door performance for Russian skating officials leading up to Sochi.

VIDEO: Watch the maneuver that led to injury

The questions – as they always did late in his career – swirled around his health. Plushenko retired after his gold in Torino, then came back and retired again after Vancouver. His knees were always trouble, then his back, having had surgery in February of 2013, just a year ago.

“He has an artificial disc in his spine,” his wife, actress Yana Rudkovskaya, told reporters. “If he had skated today, something terrifying could have happened. He did everything he could at these Olympics. He helped the team win a gold medal for the country.”

“You wondered how long he could go,” added Wylie, who skated in Albertville at the age of 27. “Would he burn out? Would his body give out? To go on until he was 31, I can tell you, at a certain point it starts to get harder and harder every single day.”

Plushenko’s part in the team event – newly introduced at the Olympics this year – solidified a legacy that had long been revered within the sport. He was second in the short program and won the free skate against guys a decade younger than he, all the while creating a roar of admiration for a figure skating team in front of its home crowd, which won the inaugural event going away.

“If you describe him in one word, it’s ‘legendary,’” said 1998 Olympic champion Tara Lipinski, an analyst for NBC. “He’s always been one of the best. He has reached that status, particularly with that short program in the team event, which was so superb. We always saw him perform under pressure and land the big jumps; he’s in a category of greatness no doubt.”

VIDEO: “I’m not able to skate”

That was the Plushenko that figure skating came to know: big jumps, sell the program and draw the crowd in. Plushenko did plenty of “preening,” or just what looked to be fancy skating between his gargantuan jumps, but his talent was undeniable, especially early in his career.

All three of the men’s leaders after the short program – Yuzuru Hanyu, Patrick Chan and Javier Fernandez – said they looked up to Plushenko, who won his first Olympic medal when Hanyu was just seven years old.

“He was my idol growing up,” said Chan, who is 22. “He was one of the best performers the skating world has ever had.”

“His legacy was tremendous,” added Evan Lysacek, the 2010 Olympic champion. “I always looked up to him, then I competed against him and tonight I watched along with everyone else as it came to an end.”

Plushenko, according to reports, said that he would be done with competitive skating after Thursday night, though would skate again in exhibitions and shows – after a bit of rest, of course.

“His longevity was amazing. He is such an icon in the sport and someone that all the kids in this arena look up to,” Wylie said. “He was at a high level for such a long time. Say what you will about his swagger, he brings a sense of his own personality to the ice and he was so fun to watch. He is the kind of skater who has such confidence and command over what he’s doing, and that is why the audience really gets behind him.”

Eliud Kipchoge wins Berlin Marathon; no world record

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Olympic champion Eliud Kipchoge won the Berlin Marathon but missed the world record by 35 seconds, slowed by rain and humidity.

The Kenyan clocked 2:03:32, just missing the three-year-old record of 2:02:57. Countryman Dennis Kimetto set that mark at the 2014 Berlin Marathon.

Kipchoge, who has won nine of his 10 career marathons, said Sunday marked the toughest conditions under which he has run 26.2 miles.

“My mind was to run at least a world record,” the 32-year-old said. “Next time. Tomorrow is a [new] day. … I still have a world record in my legs.”

The two other men chasing the record — Kenenisa Bekele and Wilson Kipsang — dropped out after 18 miles.

Instead, the runner-up was surprise Ethiopian Guye Adola, who ran the fastest debut marathon ever on a record-eligible course in an unofficial 2:03:46.

Adola stuck with Kipchoge until the last mile as both men trailed off Kimetto’s world-record pace.

Kenyan Gladys Cherono won the women’s race by 18 seconds in 2:00:23. It’s her second Berlin win in three years.

Many expected to see a men’s world record Sunday. Kipchoge, Bekele and Kipsang had all run within 16 seconds of the mark in the last two years but had never raced together in the German capital.

Berlin is the world’s fastest marathon. The men’s world record has been lowered six times since 2003, each time in the shadow of the Brandenburg Gate.

Kipchoge was the pre-race favorite.

On May 6, he ran 2:00:25 in Nike’s staged sub-two-hour marathon attempt on an Italian Formula One track. It was contested under special conditions that made it ineligible for record purposes with pacers entering mid-race.

Kipchoge won Berlin in 2015 in 2:04:00 despite insoles flopping out the back of his shoes the last half of the race.

Bekele and Kipsang teased the world record in a memorable Berlin duel last year, with Bekele winning six seconds shy of it.

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MORE: Top Americans set for major marathon next month

Yuzuru Hanyu falters as Javier Fernández wins opener

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Even Yuzuru Hanyu can struggle in September.

The Olympic and world champion singled his first jump, doubled a few more and fell in the free skate of his opening event of the Olympic season on Saturday. Video is here.

He squandered an 11.52-point lead over two-time world champion Javier Fernández from Friday’s short program at the Autumn Classic in Montreal.

Hanyu ended up 10.83 points behind Fernández overall, even though the Spaniard also fell in his free skate.

Full scores are here.

It’s a familiar feeling for Hanyu, who saw Fernández pass him in the free skate at the 2015 and 2016 Worlds.

The Japanese megastar also been known to have clunker programs at fall events in past seasons. In every one of his senior seasons, Hanyu has been beaten in one of his first two competitions.

Hanyu came to Montreal with a sore knee, which reportedly led him to take the quadruple loop out of his repertoire for one weekend.

Still, Hanyu was marvelous in the short program. His score was the second-highest under the 13-year-old judging system.

Showdowns like Hanyu-Fernández are usually reserved for, at the earliest, the Grand Prix series in late October and November. The Autumn Classic is a lower-level event.

Hanyu, 22, next skates at the Rostelecom Cup in four weeks. He will face 18-year-old U.S. champion Nathan Chen, who beat Hanyu at the Four Continents Championships at the PyeongChang Olympic venue in February.

The figure skating season continues next weekend with Nebelhorn Trophy in Germany, the final Olympic qualifying competition. North Korea could clinch its first spots in any sport for the Olympics in the pairs event.

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