VANCOUVER (AP) — Questions are off-limits until Olympic champion Evgeni Plushenko competes.
His show, however, has already begun.
Looking more like a czar in his favorite palace than an aging athlete making a comeback, the Russian flirted with the cameras, playfully improvised to the background music, then strutted into the mixed zone after Thursday's practice session to declare his silence.
Hollywood celebs have nothing on this guy.
"I am not going to speak because I am superstitious, yes," Plushenko said, grinning easily and holding out his hands as if to quiet a crowd. "We're going to talk after the short program, if you don't mind."
So no questions, someone asked.
"No questions," he replied, strolling away to address the next group of media. "Thank you very much."
For all those crabbing that figure skating is no longer the Olympics' favorite soap opera, well, don't blame Plushenko. His return has elevated the men's competition here to must-see status, and his comments about judging have everyone abuzz. He's always reveled in his status as the sport's biggest star, and he was clearly in his element Thursday.
He pretty much blew off the run-through of his short program, doing only a very fierce and fiery footwork sequence. Half of the practice was over before he even did his "warm-up" jump, tossing off a triple loop-triple toe loop combination easier than some do bunny hops. He finished another step sequence right in front of the cameras, winking and smiling as if to say, "Admit it, you missed me."
His gold medal at the Turin Games capped one of the most dominant stretches in skating. With bad knees and nothing left to win, he retired in 2006. But, at 27, he announced in the spring that he was coming back, hoping to become the first man since Dick Button in 1952 to win back-to-back Olympic titles.
It looked like a tall order. But Plushenko has been, if possible, better than ever. He breezed to victory at the Rostelecom Cup, his first international competition since Turin, and then won his eighth Russian title.
In winning the European crown last month, he showed everyone — Turin runner-up Stephane Lambiel, reigning world champ Evan Lysacek, 2007 world champ Brian Joubert and Canada's Patrick Chan — that the gold medal was his to lose. His jumps were as big as ever and done with cool precision. But it was his spins and footwork, of all things, that showed how much he's improved since 2006. His spins went on for days and were so perfectly centered the tracings looked as if they'd been made by a protractor.
He beat Lambiel, his old rival, by almost 17 points — a rout for those scoring at home.
As if that didn't put enough of a spotlight on him, he stirred up things by suggesting judges can still work the system, saying, "If the judges want someone to place high, they can arrange it." The component marks, the old artistic marks, will always be subjective, no matter how hard the International Skating Union tries to quantify them.
Whether Plushenko intended to cause a controversy isn't certain — he's not talking, remember? — but he's a smart guy, and has been around long enough to know nothing gets people worked up like judging shenanigans. Sure enough, after respected U.S. judge Joe Inman forwarded Plushenko's comments to friends, some claimed it was evidence the North Americans were trying to lobby on behalf of their skaters. Never mind that Inman only thought he was sharing something his friends — judges and non-judges alike — would find interesting, and never intended it to be made public.
Also Thursday, the ISU batted down suggestions that Russia had "demanded" critical assessments of Plushenko's 2006 free skate be removed from instructional videos for judges.
Plushenko's performance, which didn't exactly get rave reviews, was chosen when he was still retired, said ISU event director Peter Krick, who has great input into the judging system. When he announced his comeback, the ISU removed it out of fairness, Krick said.
How does Plushenko feel about that? Tune in Tuesday.