Olympics: Plushenko's spark of genius ignites Russia

SOCHI, Russia - Two months ago it looked as if Yevgeny Plushenko's desperate bid to compete in his fourth Olympics at home were dead and buried.

At 31 and after twelve operations on his knees and back the skater from Saint Petersburg looked on his last legs after finishing just second at the Russian nationals behind 18-year-old Maxim Kovtun.

But Kovtun's flop at the Europeans suddenly opened the path for Plushenko to bid for two more gold to add to his 2006 Olympic men's title and two silver medals in 2002 and 2010.

And the maestro did not disappoint in front of his adoring fans and President Vladimir Putin at the Iceberg Skating Place on Sunday night.

He delivered two solid performances in both the short and free programmes over two days of competition to put the hosts on the path to their first gold of the Sochi Games in the inaugural team competition.

"Zhenya (Plushenko) is simply a genius," said ice dancer Ekaterina Bobrova, one of ten skaters to stand on the stop of the podium for Russia.

And he paved the way for the new generation with Julia Lipnitskaia, 15, holding her nerve amid the noisy euphoria and a sea of red and white Russian flags, to seal the title.

"And to finish with Julia, she's a tiny genius too," said Bobrova.

Skating to the "Best of Plushenko" - a compilation of the highlights of his long career - the veteran may have lacked the speed and dazzling spins of his heyday.

No longer able to perform the back-breaking Biellmann spin that amazed his fans, he nevertheless still managed to captivate the audience.

"Many skaters are good but Yevgeny has charisma when he skates like that," said his coach of 20 years Alexei Mishin.

"He radiates power, he radiates a sense of duty. The majority loves him, the minority are jealous." Mishin added: "He didn't need to show something outstanding, something great, to show off 'I'm Plushenko, I'm great'. He's famous enough.

"Like a girl who wants to look nice with too much makeup, too short a skirt, he doesn't need it. The task was to be a good member of the team."

Plushenko, who was born near Russia's far-eastern city of Khabarovsk, started his skating training at the age of four after his family moved to Volgograd, the city on the Volga river bank.

He showed quick progress but after the ice arena in Volgograd was closed he had to move to Saint Petersburg at the age of 11 where he started to train under Mishin. The 2006 Olympics in Turin, where he won the gold medal, were the peak of Plushenko's career.

A three-time world champion he had finished runner-up four years earlier to fellow Russian and long-time rival Alexei Yagudin in Salt Lake City.

Plushenko retired for a first time after Turin but returned to compete in Vancouver, where he controversially lost to American Evan Lysacek by a razor-thin margin.

After losing his eligibility to skate in ISU events because he skated in ice shows he was reinstated in 2011, and won his seventh European title in 2012.

After undergoing spinal surgery to replace a disc last year he began the long battle to make the Russian team.

In Sochi, he joined Swede Gillis Grafstroem as the only skater to win four figure skating medals - three in gold - between 1920 and 1932.

And he could overtake that mark in the men's individual event on February 13 and 14.

Although Japan's Yuzuru Hanyu outshone Plushenko in the short programme the Russian veteran finished ahead of three-time world champion Patrick Chan of Canada.

The lure of another medal is appealing and he intends to skate in the individual event despite feeling his back on Sunday.

"It feels great. I would like more medals," he admitted.

"I did one quadruple (Sunday), that was our programme, but I have second quad, one combination, tiple axel, triple flip we have in our pocket." Married to Yana Rudkovskaya, Russian singer Dima Bilan's record producer, Plushenko and has two sons - Egor, 7, and one-year-old Alexander.

"I have a great team, especially my wife, my coach, choreographers, managers. I skate for them, for myself, my sons, my family." And Sochi may not be the end of the road for Plushenko to make a comeback for a third time at the 2018 Games in South Korea.

"Why not?" he said. "Perhaps I should try, don't know."