By Pritha Sarkar
Jan 27 (Reuters) - No stranger to whipping up a storm, Yevgeny Plushenko will be out to prove that his ageing, aching and patched-up body can still jump as high, spin as rapidly and move as artistically as his more supple and younger rivals at the Sochi Games.
Canada's three-times world champion Patrick Chan, dynamic Japanese duo Yuzuru Hanyu and Daisuke Takahashi and double European champion Javier Fernandez will be eager to upstage Plushenko in front of his home fans but that has not stopped the Russian showman from living up to his "spoilt diva" tag.
As the 31-year-old gets ready for his fourth Olympics, where he will try and add to his haul of one gold and two silvers, it is evident that while his skating has lost some of its explosive spark he is still number one when it comes to igniting anger.
Since picking up a silver at the 2010 Vancouver Games, Plushenko has barely laced up his boots in a competition arena - opting to skip every world championships in the last Olympic cycle and also undergoing back surgery.
His rustiness was clearly on show when he failed to win his country's national championships last month and promptly declared himself out of the running for Russia's sole spot in the men's Olympic competition.
That left national champion Maksim Kovtun and European medallists Sergei Voronov and Konstantin Menshov to battle it out for Sochi but the trio were left fuming when Plushenko ended up barging into the Olympics through the backdoor following a secret test skate in front of Russian officials.
His selection created a backlash among fans who took to social media to vent their anger.
"It's sad for Russian skating that a legend like Plushenko acts like a spoilt diva," said one observer while others simply declared: "It's not fair".
Before Plushenko made his u-turn, recently-retired American skater Johnny Weir summed up the challenge facing the Russian.
"I'm a huge cheerleader for Yevgeny Plushenko. He's been an incredible asset to our sport, he's really revolutionised the sport throughout his years in competitive skating," Weir told Reuters in a telephone interview.
"Not to say he isn't great, but the level of these young skaters from Canada and Japan ... the calibre is so high. While it is possible to teach an old dog new tricks, it's difficult.
"You wouldn't want to compete in the men's singles competition after having won a medal in the last three consecutive Olympics and not (finish) on the podium in your last Olympics."
That remains a real possibility for Plushenko because when he does line up at Iceberg Palace on Feb. 6 for the team event, which will be making its Olympic debut in Sochi, he will find that the skating landscape has totally changed since his last global outing in 2010.
Evan Lysacek triumphed in Canada without attempting the difficult quadruple jump, prompting Plushenko to declare the American was "not a true champion" and won the gold by "dancing rather than skating like a man".
That observation is likely to haunt Plushenko in Sochi as while he has struggled to land cleanly the jump that requires 4-1/2 rotations through the air, there will be a deluge of quads on show at the Black Sea resort.
"I don't think any of the top 15 in the world don't know how to do a quad. To be a world or Olympic champion, you have to be a complete skater," Fernandez, whose free skate includes three quads, told Reuters.
Chan added: "Whereas in Vancouver, only three out of the top five attempted quads.... (now) all the top men are doing quads. Now you even see a lot of the junior skaters doing quads."
While rivals are more likely to be wary of Plushenko's sharp tongue than his skating prowess, Chan will be out to silence his own critics after striking gold at the 2013 worlds despite a shocking performance.
The 23-year-old redeemed himself this season by amassing a record 295.27 points during a grand prix in Paris and as he heads to Sochi, breaking the 300-point barrier is a reality.
Exactly thirty years after Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean captivated the world with their iconic ice dance to Ravel's Bolero, which drew a perfect row of 6.0s at the Sarajevo Olympics, Chan could create his own history on Feb. 14.
"My goal is to do a clean programme and to perform my heart out," Chan said. "The ease of the (old) 6.0 system was that people could understand what a perfect score is and I hope that if I can reach 300 ... people can understand what is a good score or what is the ideal score for perfection."
While Chan is aiming to become the first Canadian figure skater to win a singles gold medal at the Olympics, the United States face a shutout in men's and women's singles skating for the first time since 1936.
No American has won a world championship singles medal in the four years since Vancouver, and their main medal hope wrests with the ice dance team of Meryl Davis and Charlie White.
Their ability to whiz around the ice while weaving in and out of spellbinding lifts and intricate choreography can leave awe-struck spectators feeling rather breathless.
They have won their last 11 competitions, are unbeaten for 22 months and are favourites to become the first Americans to win the ice dance gold at a Winter Games.
Their intense North American rivalry with training mates and friends Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, the 2010 Olympic champions from Canada, will also spice up the competition.
The women's event will have a familiar feel to it as four years on from winning gold with record-breaking scores, South Korea's Kim Yuna will be keen to hold off the challenge of life-long rival and triple-Axel jump specialist Mao Asada of Japan and jittery Italian challenger Carolina Kostner.
With the trio now well into their 20s, they might find themselves upstaged by 15-year-old Russian dynamo Julia Lipnitskaia, who dazzled to take gold at this month's Europeans.
The pairs competition could also leave the hosts in raptures after world champions Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov led a Russian sweep of the medals at the Europeans. (Reporting by Pritha Sarkar, editing by Martyn Herman)
- Sports & Recreation
- Ice Skating
- Patrick Chan
- Javier Fernandez