Figure skating - Plushenko proves he was worth a gamble
SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - Yevgeny Plushenko wowed the audience with a dazzling performance on his controversial homecoming but even the Russian showman's presence failed to draw the crowds as the team event made its Olympic debut.
The multi-discipline competition was introduced into the Sochi programme to create the kind of drama and emotion seen in gymnastics during the Summer Games, where winning team accolades trumps any individual glory.
But if the rows and rows of empty seats seen at the Iceberg Skating Palace on Thursday, and the reaction of the skaters is anything to go by, the team competition in Sochi is very much a "B event" at the Black Sea resort.
Men's favourite Patrick Chan summed up the general feeling among the competitors by declaring: "Today is like a trial run. My priority is the … individual (event).
"There are many times in my career that I went out on the ice and said 'awe, I'd like to do it again'. That is the great opportunity we have at this year's Olympics."
While some may feel it was a case of sour grapes for Chan after the three-times world champion once again botched a triple Axel, which has long been his nemesis, there was no hiding from the fact that most of the skaters are using the team event as a "warm-up" to hone their skills for challenges that lie ahead.
For 2006 Olympic gold medallist Plushenko, though, Thursday's competition offered a chance to prove that the gamble to pick him as Russia's sole male representative ahead of 18-year-old national champion Maxim Kovtun paid off.
There was little evidence that his ageing, aching, patched up body was not up to the task as his rousing performance to Tango de Roxanne was only eclipsed by the flawless short programme produced by Japanese teenager Yuzuru Hanyu.
The 31-year-old's exploits helped hosts Russia to take pole position with 19 points after day one of the team competition as world pairs champions Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov were determined not to "let down such a champion".
"Plushenko skated very well and ... he set a very good rhythm for our team ... he just beat the world champion of the last three years, Patrick Chan, and no one expected that," Trankov said.
Chan's mishap left the Canadians second with 17 points, with China (15) and Japan (13) completing the top four.
Volosozhar and Trankov were foot perfect with their interpretation of Aram Khatchaturian's Masquerade Waltz and they blew away nearest rivals Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford of Canada by more than 10 points with a score of 83.79.
Plushenko was left blowing kisses to a delirious crowd who had welcomed him on the ice with chants of "Zhen-y-a, Zhen-y-a, Zhen-y-a".
After opening his crowd-pleasing programme with a high-flying quadruple toeloop-triple toeloop combination, he soared through his triple Axel, stuck the landing on a triple Lutz, and then began punching the air even before he had completed his final spin.
It was a routine that sparkled as much as the sequins studded around his figure-hugging black bodysuit and it was little wonder he was left feeling "dizzy with all the screaming and clapping from the fans".
His score of 91.39 was only surpassed by Hanyu, who beat his childhood idol with a flawless programme in which his jumps were higher, spins were quicker and footwork was immaculate.
Hanyu's total of 97.98 was 6.59 points higher than Plushenko, while Chan was surprisingly left trailing in third.
"I was very scared to go up against Plushenko...(because) he was my hero in childhood," Hanyu, who was just seven when the Russian won his first Olympic medal in 2002, said through a translator.
"That is why I was happy to skate here with him. He is one of the best skaters.
"I just wanted to put all my heart into the performance."
Jeremy Abbott's heart, however, seemed to be elsewhere as he had a day to forget by messing up every one of his jumps and his dire showing left the U.S. in danger of missing the cut for the free skate as they trail in seventh with 10 points.
Abbott fell and slammed into the boards following his opening quad, doubled a planned triple Lutz and fluffed his triple Axel.
It was little wonder Abbott skated off the ice holding his head in disappointment.
"I am torn apart ... that I fell on my butt," he said.
The team event features 10 nations and each country has one representative competing in men's singles, women's singles, pairs and ice dancing. They each perform a short programme, after which the top five nations battle it out for the medals by competing in the free skates.
(Reporting by Pritha Sarkar, additional reporting by Alissa de Carbonnel, editing by Toby Davis)
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