It was dramatic, emotional and inspired the audience at Sochi’s figure skating Iceberg Palace to a standing ovation: but all for the wrong reasons.
Evgeni Plushenko, Russia’s hero of the ice and four-time Olympic medallist, proved the doubters right. The 31-year-old never looked like skating the men’s singles program, though he left it to the very last second to make it official.
When he entered the rink to warm up he was soon gliding gently along holding his lower back – which he says still contains metal screws from an operation – with both hands.
He practised a jump and stumbled. The crowd gasped. He tried another and didn’t nail it, not even close.
Now he was bending forward, hands on knees, as his competitors (including young Australian Brendan Kerry) skated around him trying not to stare.
As the clock counted down for his routine to start he was still in conversation with his coaches. Wearily he skated out to the middle, teasing the inevitable, then to the judges. “Evgeni Plushenko has withdrawn for medical reasons,” the announcers said. And he held out his arms in an apologetic shrug, bowed and left the ice.
The crowd were on their feet, knowing this may be the end of an incredible career.
The withdrawal was foreshadowed at the end of the team competition on Sunday, in which Russia claimed gold after a stunning routine from Plushenko that left him complaining of spinal pain.
After withdrawing from the competition on Thursday he revealed he had a bad fall in training the day before, and the next morning “I couldn’t jump.”
"I skated maybe seven minutes maximum. I tried and tried and tried today."
"In the warm-up I did the triple loop and triple lutz, but after the first triple axel I stepped out and felt terrible pain in my leg and the second one was just a terrible landing. I couldn't feel my legs after it."
"It hurt and that was it, I had to withdraw."
"I am sorry for my fans and for everybody, but I tried till the end. I almost cried. It's hard, believe me. This is not how I wanted to end my career. I am very disappointed. But I tried to do my best."
He said this was not the end of his career.
"I need a big rest now, and to have some treatment. Then I need to start my rehabilitation. I have already had four pills today."
"Of course I will keep skating. I will skate in many shows, but for now I need a very big rest."
Russia is left with no skater in the men’s competition. Plyushchenko controversially took the spot over 18 year-old Maxim Kovtun, who beat Plyushchenko in the national championship, but then struggled at the European championships.
The free skate men's final is on Friday evening, Sochi time.