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.”

Tori Bowie upsets Elaine Thompson; Gatlin, Felix struggle at Pre

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Tori Bowie ran a statement 200m at the Pre Classic, clocking the fastest-ever time before the month of June and upsetting Olympic champion Elaine Thompson of Jamaica.

And she called it a training race.

“My coach made it clear that we were just training for nationals,” Bowie, huffing and puffing after winning in 21.77 seconds, told Lewis Johnson on NBC. “No pressure at all.”

Bowie, the Olympic 100m silver medalist and 200m bronze medalist, beat her personal best by .22 of a second.

While Bowie starred, U.S. stalwarts Allyson Felix and Justin Gatlin dropped to fifth-place finishes Saturday.

Full Pre Classic results are here.

Athletes are preparing for the U.S. Championships from June 23-25, a qualifying meet for the world championships in London in August.

Felix finished fifth in the 200m behind Bowie, Olympic 400m champion Shaunae Miller, Thompson and Olympic 200m silver medalist Dafne Schippers.

“Not that great, not that great today,” Felix said, according to meet officials. “I feel like my training is going well, it was good to get out here and see where I was at.”

Felix has a bye into the worlds in the 400m as defending world champion but is no longer a medal favorite in the 200m, where she won Olympic silver in 2004 and 2008 and gold in 2012. She clocked 22.33 seconds for fifth Saturday, which was .35 behind third-place Thompson.

Felix missed the 2016 Olympic team in the 200m by .01 while slowed by an ankle injury. But in 2015, a healthy Felix ran faster than 22.33 in all four of her 200m races.

Gatlin finished fifth in the 100m in 9.97 seconds, continuing his slowest season in recent years. At 35 years old, he is no longer looking like the top rival to Usain Bolt, who debuts in his farewell season June 10.

In fact, Gatlin may be in danger of not making the U.S. team in the 100m, which will be the top three finishers at nationals in four weeks.

In contrast, American Ronnie Baker is looking like a medal contender. He won Saturday in 9.86 seconds, which would be the fastest time in the world this year if not for too much tailwind (2.4 meters/second).

Baker, 23, has been a surprise this season, breaking 10 seconds a total of three times including Saturday. He was eliminated in the 2016 Olympic Trials semifinals and had not broken 10 seconds with legal wind before this year.

“My thoughts were, I’ve got every chance to win this just as much as everyone else does,” Baker told Lewis Johnson on NBC. “9.86 is unbelievable.”

Norway’s Jakob Ingebrigtsen, a 16-year-old, became one of the youngest-ever to break four minutes in the mile. He finished 11th against a field of older runners.

Four-time Olympic champion Mo Farah held off Ethiopian Yomif Kejelcha to extend his 5000m winning streak to 11 meets dating to 2013. Farah clocked 13:00.7 to Kejelcha’s 13:01.21.

It marked Farah’s last track race in the U.S. as the Oregon-based Brit plans to switch to marathon running after the world championships in August.

Rio gold medalist Caster Semenya barely extended her 800m undefeated streak to 16 finals. The scrutinized South Africa edged Olympic bronze medalist Margaret Wambui by one tenth of a second, clocking 1:59.78.

Olympic champion Omar McLeod took the 110m hurdles in 13.01 seconds, the fastest time in the world this year. McLeod beat a field that included Aries Merritt, the 2012 Olympic champion and world-record holder (12.80), and 2013 World champion David Oliver.

Christian Taylor, a two-time Olympic champion, recorded the third-best triple jump of all time, 18.11 meters.

Rio bronze medalist Sam Kendricks won the pole vault against a field that included Olympic champion Thiago Braz of Brazil, world-record holder Renaud Lavillenie of France and Swedish phenom Armand Duplantis, a Louisiana high school junior. Kendricks cleared 5.86 meters.

Olympic bronze medalist Ashley Spencer won the 400m hurdles in 53.38 seconds, a personal best and the fastest time in the world this year. Olympic champion Dalilah Muhammad was fifth in her first 400m hurdles race of the year.

In the shot put, Olympic champion Ryan Crouser unleashed a 22.43-meter throw to beat a field including world champion Joe Kovacs.

Jasmin Stowers won the 100m hurdles in 12.59 seconds, .03 off the fastest time in the world this year. The field lacked suspended Olympic champion Brianna Rollins and world-record holder Keni Harrison, who recently suffered a broken hand.

Russian Maria Lasitskene won the high jump in her first competition outside of Russia since 2015, when she was world champion. Lasitskene competed as a neutral athlete Saturday as Russia is still banned from international competition due to its poor anti-doping record. Her 2.03-meter clearance matched the best in the world since June 2013.

The Diamond League continues in Rome on June 8, with coverage on NBC Sports Gold.

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VIDEO: Runner clocks No. 2 time ever … after stopping to fix shoe

Mo Farah on Oregon Project allegations: ‘I’m sick of it’

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EUGENE, Ore. (AP) — As he prepares for what could be his final track race on U.S. soil, Mo Farah remains dogged by doping allegations surrounding his team.

The British Olympian will race the 5000m Saturday at the Prefontaine Classic, the only U.S. stop in the elite Diamond League series (NBC, NBC Sports Gold from 4-6 p.m. ET).

Farah has said that 2017 will be his last year on the track, with an eye on the world championships in London this August. The 34-year-old plans to transition after that to marathons.

Farah defended his 5000m and 10,000m titles at the Rio Olympics last August, becoming the first British track and field athlete to win four Olympic gold medals. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth last December.

But at a news conference for the Prefontaine, Farah faced questions about allegations that paint his team, Nike’s Oregon Project, in a bad light.

Details have emerged from a 2016 report prepared by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency on practices by the team, led by decorated U.S. marathoner Alberto Salazar. Allegations have also surfaced recently based on information obtained by the hacking group known as Fancy Bears.

“I just get sick of it, really, to be honest with you,” Farah said. “As an athlete you just want to do the best as you can, and that’s what I want to do. But it’s nothing new. It’s something the press likes to be able to twist it and add a little bit of spices and add stuff on it. Being an Olympic champion, four-time Olympic champion, you do get a lot of that stuff. But at the same time you just have to do the best that you can. I believe in clean sports.”

He said he has not read the USADA report that has shown up online.

“It’s nothing new. You tell me something new. Since 2011 it’s the same stuff,” Farah said, clearly exasperated. “It’s all right. That’s what you get being an Olympic champion, and what we do.”

Farah has been training for the past five months in Flagstaff, Ariz., for the outdoor season and his final bow at the worlds. He hopes to run both of his signature races, the 5000m and 10,000m, if his body lets him, he said.

Saturday’s Prefontaine will be bittersweet.

“I don’t like to think like that, but it will be, my last,” he said. “It will probably be very emotional knowing that will be my last track racing in the U.S. But you know, tomorrow (I) just can’t be worrying about anything. I just have to concentrate on the race and getting the job done.”

Farah will be part of a stellar field that includes Paul Chelimo, the 5000m silver medalist in Rio, and Kenyan Paul Tanui, the Rio silver medalist in the 10,000m.

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VIDEO: Runner clocks No. 2 time ever … after stopping to fix shoe