Winter Olympics Sochi 2014

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Backlash Swells Over Plushenko's Last-Minute Withdrawal From Olympic Figure Skating

Plushenko's late withdrawal prevents next-in-line Maxim Kovtun from skating in his place, critics say

By Emily Feldman
|  Friday, Feb 14, 2014  |  Updated 8:54 AM EDT
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AP

Evgeni Plushenko of Russia leaves the ice after pulling out of the men's short program figure skating competition due to illness at the Iceberg Skating Palace during the 2014 Winter Olympics, Thursday, Feb. 13, 2014, in Sochi, Russia.

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A steady tide of resentment against Evgeni Plushenko has been rising since the Russian figure skating icon announced the end of his competitive career Thursday night in Sochi.

The backlash began almost immediately on social media after the four-time Olympic medalist withdrew from the men's individual skating competition, moments before he was to perform.

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Critics pointed out that if Plushenko -- who cited severe back problems as the reason for his withdrawal -- had decided to pull out after the team competition, a substitute could have skated in his place. That he hadn't by Sunday's deadline was a shock to many observers who assumed the 31-year-old would step aside after helping Russia to a gold medal win in the team event.

"The deadline for substituting figure skaters for the individual competition has passed," David Nowak, the head of RIA Novosti's English sports wire tweeted Sunday. "Plushenko stays. No Kovtun. A surprise to everyone."

Maxim Kovtun, an 18-year-old rising star who recently beat Plushenko at the Russian championships, would have been next in line. Even before the men's competition was underway, social media was abuzz about how Kovtun should have been chosen to skate for Russia in the first place.

"The second [Plushenko] falls, we are going to discuss how Kovtun deserved to be here," The Skating Lesson, a site run by former competitive skaters Dave Lease and Jenny Kirk tweeted.

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Plushenko's back problems were widely known. After 12 different surgeries, it was questionable whether he would even be able to compete in the team event at start of the Games. When he did, many expected his performance to be a grand finale to an illustrious career. Rather than step aside, however, he pushed ahead, only deciding to drop out after falling on a jump in warm ups before the short program.  He said the fall felt "like a knife in my back"--a quote that got some traction, among critics, on Twitter.

"Plushy says his injury felt like a knife in his back. He should ask Kovtun how it feels," one tweeted.

Michael Buckley, a strong internet personality tweeting extensively about figure skating posted a breathless response to the news on YouTube, accusing Plushenko of hanging on until the last minute over ego. 

He and others on Twitter also suggested that judges and officials had given him special treatment because of his celebrity status in the country. Time.com pointed out that Plushenko was only added to the Russian Olympic roster late last month after the Russian figure skating association allowed him to try out via "a 'control run' for a committee of skating experts less than three weeks before the Games. Although that performance was never shown to the public or the press, the committee ruled that it was enough to give Plushenko a ticket to Sochi."

Still, Plushenko insisted to reporters Thursday night that he had every intention of competing in the men's individual competition and truly believed that he could.

"I said to myself, 'Evgeni, you must skate," he told The Associated Press. "It's two more days, short and long program."

With the deadline for a replacement skater long gone, no one will skate for Russia as the men's competition concludes Friday night.

"It's hard," Plushenko told TODAY on Friday. "But you know, it's life. I've had 12 surgeries. I wanted to skate, but it happens. I tried my best. i tried to change figure skating."

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