Corruption On Ice

Figure Skating - Winter Olympics Day 6

Last night, Russian figure-skater Evgeni Plushenko withdrew from competition due to injury. Leonid Bershidsky provides background:

Plushenko, 31, has recently suffered one setback after another. After winning silver in Vancouver – and complaining loudly about the judging – he missed most top-level tournaments because of injuries. Last year, he crashed to the ice at the world championships and had to pull out. It took complex spine surgery to get him back on his feet, and in January, 2014, he lost to 18-year-old Maxim Kovtun at the Russian national championship. According to the Russian Figure Skating Federation’s own rules, Kovtun was supposed to travel to Sochi, but, after much debate, officials decided to send Plushenko, anyway. The 18-year-old was deemed too inexperienced and erratic, because of a woeful failure at the 2014 European championships.

The larger symbolism of Plushenko flaming out:

[T]he choice of an injured star over a talented youth and disregard for rules are typical of the way top-level sports are managed in today’s Russia. The Soviet system of selecting and training young athletes, which served as a model for the frighteningly effective Chinese sports machine of today, is gone. The few remaining stars brought up by that system, including Plushenko, are squeezed relentlessly for their few remaining drops of gold.

Julia Ioffe zooms out:

Some Russians are wondering if this isn’t just a symptom of Putin’s Russia, where connections and closeness to the power elite guarantee you positions and privileges that you might not otherwise land.

As I wrote in my cover story last week, this is why many younger, ambitious Russians feel that they’re suffocating: the old men at the top just won’t let go of their thrones and let the young’uns take a stab at things. “This is what we call, is there a path for young people, or like the vetrical of power,” one Russian tweeted tonight, referring to the Putinist power structure, referred to as the “vertical.” “People don’t rotate out until they utter the words, ‘I’m tired, I’m leaving.'” (This is what then-old man Boris Yeltsin said before handing power over to Vladimir Putin.)

She follows up:

Plushenko, despite his precarious health, talked his way onto the Russian Olympic skating team in closed-door meetings. Talked, not skated. (Plushenko is a talented skater, but he’s one hell of a diva and, during the 2010 Olymipcs in Vancouver, his public ranting and whining and complaining were virtually all I wrote about.) But Plushenko is also one of a coterie of athletes and artists that are loyal Kremlin hacks, understanding that, these days, there is pretty much only one side of the bread that’s buttered in Russia. These athletes and artists perform at official functions, they support the Kremlin line when needed, and, as a result, are wealthy, privileged people, existing in a plane far above the rest of their countrymen—and, often, the law.

Update from a reader:

Someone please explain the difference between Plushenko getting a spot on the Olympic team by pushing aside another Russian skater who qualified ahead of him and Ashley Wagner of the US who did EXACTLY the same thing. She fell in the finals but was given a spot by US authorities because she’s older and more experienced. What am I missing?

(Photo: Evgeny Plyushchenko of Russia leaves the stadium after his injury at a warm up during the Men’s Figure Skating Short Program on February 13, 2014 in Sochi, Russia. By Vladimir Rys Photography/Getty Images)