SOCHI, Russia — Evgeni Plushenko was one of the great divas in the history of figure skating, a prickly, trash-talking, over-the-top and outrageously talented showman, sort of the sports wrestling heel for all these years. He's a dime a dozen in the NFL, but in the kiss-and-cry world of figure skating, he was one of a kind. Only those who didn't accept the act for what it was were ever offended.
So it was probably always going to end like this: Plushenko getting introduced as the next skater in the men's short program here on Thursday at the Winter Olympics, but rather than performing, he dramatically skated to the judges' table with his face in a grimace and his hands on his lower back like someone had just beaten him with a baseball bat.
It was then announced he'd withdrawn for "medical reasons," and he limped to center ice as one last ovation roared down on him and he bravely waved his hands to the fans at Iceberg Skating Palace.
[Photos: Plushenko's most epic outfits]
Immediately the Russian media were skeptical that his was just all one final act, that he could've known sooner and dropped out for a younger skater, or spared everyone the curtain-call introduction scene or even just never bothered to attempt to compete again at age 31 and a dozen surgeries in his past.
They can tear down legends here, too.
His coach, Alexei Mishin, was soon defending him and the seriousness of the injury.
"In the future, figure skating could be inside the Paralympic Games," Mishin said. "In this case, he already ready to skate in the Paralympics."
Ah, what? Mishin laughed at his own joke. Just about all the Russians laughed with him. So who knows? Seriously, the "Evgeni Plushenko Reality Show" has always been a wild one and it went out with a bang.
He was never just going to quietly retire via a Facebook post.
"I like to ask you," Mishin soon begged to the media. "This is not a tragedy what happened to Evgeni. I was able to work with him for almost 20 years. During that time we mostly had success. We mostly won.
[Photos: Russian Olympians who are also models]
"Don't push him too much. Don't kick. Don't criticize him too much. Try to tell about him more positive than negative."
Plushenko won the individual silver in 2002, gold in 2006 and a bunch of world and European championships over the years. He quit for over three years, then unretired and took silver in 2010 in Vancouver. He was convinced he was cheated, though, mostly because a lot of people don't like him. So he smacked American Evan Lysacek for somehow taking gold even though he didn't do a quad jump, which, of course, Plushenko could do in his sleep.
"If the Olympic champion doesn't know how to jump a quad ... now it's not men's figure skating, now it's dancing," Plushenko ripped back then.
During the medal ceremony that night he made clear his displeasure with the judges by walking over the top spot on the podium anyway. It was classic.
That was expected to be the end, but against the wishes of some, he refused to retire and showed up in Sochi. He skated well in helping Russia win team gold last week, earning a medal in a fourth Olympics, a figure skating record.
But many wondered if he shouldn't step aside for the younger generation, especially when Plushenko himself kept making a big deal about how it was a miracle he could even skate and stay healthy. How was he ever going to make it through the entire Games?
"I'm alive," he crowed after one of his performances in the team competition. "I already win for myself."
This was the beauty of the guy: He was all about himself and in such a wonderfully unapologetic way that he was actually good for figure skating. He was, if nothing else, a character, perhaps an unappealing character to some, but at least a genuine one in a sport with an abundance of flash and flare and rhinestones.
It's why, though, almost no one could believe he just turned up lame in the minutes before his performance, that the final bit on the ice was just a coincidence and there was ever a chance he was going to skate.
Plushenko, his coach and his agent all said he was fine last night only to have his back spasm while landing during some off-ice practice earlier in the day. He took some pain meds, tried to fight through the day and just wanted to give it a final chance.
"Of course I'm disappointed," Plushenko said. "I tried my best and I wanted to skate. It is sad."
None of the Russian media doubted the injuries or discounted how phenomenal it was that a guy his age made it this far. There was just skepticism of everything else: the timing, the ego, the act.
Plushenko declared himself retired — no Paralympics, apparently — and took time to note what a champion he was and finally said he's already working on a future plan "that will surprise the public."
You couldn't have scripted it better.
Soon, he was walking away, gone but certainly not forgotten after one, last, great dramatic performance, the kind that made him so compelling in figure skating in the first place. This time, he didn't even need to skate.
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