Russian figure skater makes comeback for country

BOSTON — During the second half of the 20th century, figure skating had an unambiguous power divide. America revered the men’s and ladies’ events and produced a string of Olympic kings and queens, while the Soviet Union — honoring the collective over the individual — put a primacy on pairs and ice dancing and had a stranglehold on those gold medals.

But as the Soviet Union and its sports empire crumpled, some extraordinary skating talent began to eschew partnership ties and drift into those less politically correct singles events. The Soviet Union had not won a single gold medal in Olympic ladies' or men’s until, in the 1990s, Viktor Petrenko, Alexei Urmanov and Ilia Kulik all won Olympic men’s golds in succession.

Those triumphs launched what was the golden era in figure skating for Russian men. Two skaters who trained together in St. Petersburg as teens, Alexei Yagudin and Evgeni Plushenko, would emerge as surpassing talents to dominate the sport for almost a decade. Between them they won seven consecutive world titles and two Olympic crowns.

Yagudin and Plushenko were not comrades in skates, nor friendly rivals off the ice. The tension played out in contrasting styles. On the ice, they were the proverbial fire and ice. Yagudin, older by a couple years, was the Russian man of action, given to macho posturing. His performances were passionate, replete with big gestures, broad emotions and powerful strides and jumps. Yagudin’s aesthetics leaned to the populist; he skated to themes from movies — “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Gladiator” and “The Man In the Iron Mask” — that cast him in grand, heroic roles.

Plushenko, pale-complected with a helmet of long, thin, wheat-colored hair, didn’t look like he’d ever stepped outside the rink let alone battled the forces of evil. He was arty — balletic and, at times whimsical — and often appeared emotionally distant. He had a taste for the abstruse, almost as if he were French. Still, his lines were unparalleled, at least outside the Bolshoi, and his physical power always came as a surprise. His biggest jumps, including quads, appeared effortless; not a single hair slid out of place as he floated above the ice.

After Yagudin, at 18, won the first of his three successive world championships, he left Russia to train in the United States. And though Yagudin still trained with a Russian coach, there was some contention about whose skating was more authentically Russian and who truly reflected their nation’s soul.

In 2001, the year before the Salt Lake City Olympics, 18-year-old Plushenko wrested the world title away from Yagudin, who appeared to be in less than tip-top condition. As a result, Plushenko arrived in Salt Lake City as the favorite. The judges, at least those from the old Eastern bloc nations, seemed to prefer his refined, classical stylings to Yagudin’s manly struttings.

Competing as the Olympic favorite is not necessarily an enviable position in figure skating. No reigning men’s world champion has won the Olympic gold since Scott Hamilton back in 1984. In the first moments of his short program, Plushenko botched his ambitious quad-triple combination and, at night’s end, found himself in an unfamiliar place — fourth.

Fourth place was not necessarily fatal — a week later Sarah Hughes would rise from there in a stunning upset to win the ladies gold — but it required a decidedly sub-par effort by the leader. And Yagudin was not cooperating. He pulled off the rare feat of delivering his greatest performance ever on the biggest stage. In one spellbinding step sequence, he strode the length of the ice — thin Prince Andrew’s made charge at Austerlitz in “War and Peace” — to lift the audience to its feet. His scores were the highest ever awarded in a men’s or ladies' competition for an Olympic free skate.

Plushenko skated well, but had to settle for silver. With his legacy secure, Yagudin retired, leaving Plushenko with no real competition. Still, he schooled himself on that 2002 Olympic loss and made artistic changes that reflected the lessons. His performances became more accessible — Plushenko seemed less aloof on the ice — and the themes of his skating routines no longer felt like an academic test. At the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy, he performed his free skate to music from “The Godfather,” leaving little to interpretation. (Hungarian composer Edvin Marton adapted the score especially for Plushenko’s performance.)

The artistic touches were lovely, but just frosting on the cake. With a new scoring system in place that rewarded technical virtuosity, no skater could compete with his array of jumps, spins and steps and Plushenko breezed to the gold medal.

With all those big leaps having taken a toll on his body, particularly his knees, Plushenko announced his retirement and skated off into the Russian sunset. But only a year later, he watched uneasily as the Russian team was completely shut out of the medals at the world championships. Concerned, he said, that a glorious skating tradition was being squandered, Plushenko set his sights on a 2010 Olympics comeback, aiming to become the first man since Dick Button in 1952 to successfully defend his Olympic figure-skating title.

For two more years, though, Plushenko only performed in exhibitions and it wasn’t until this season that he returned to the rigors of competition. At the European championships last month in Estonia, the 27-year-old looked like the long sabbatical had served him well. The Russian star set a men’s scoring record in the short program and, with an opening quad-triple combination in his free skate, assured the gold medal.

The flawless quadruple jump sent a clear message to his competition. In the post-Plushenko era, there has been no dominant male skater; there have been four different world champions in the past four years. With little room for error, top skaters began dialing back on risky jumps in hopes that a clean program would trump a flawed, ambitious one. The last two titlists, including America’s Evan Lysacek in 2009, won gold medals without attempting a quad — something Plushenko views as a regrettable and “incomprehensible” regression in the sport.

It seemed a clever psychological gambit to boost the pressure on the other hopefuls. Still, it is less likely to be the ambitions of his rivals than his own ability to summon that quad once again that will ultimately determine his Olympic fate. With a sixth European title now behind him, Plushenko envisions Vancouver shaping up rather well. As he assured fans in a Russian TV interview posted on his website, “Everything is going according to plan.”

Men’s Figure Skating
Short Program — Feb. 16
Long Program — Feb. 18