SOCHI (AFP) - Two-time gold medallist Yevgeny Plushenko dramatically announced his retirement from figure skating after withdrawing from the Winter Olympics with a back injury on Thursday in a move which stunned the host nation.
"Amateur sport is finished for me. Maybe not in the way that I wanted. But I leave with a gold medal, that is also great," the 31-year-old told Russia's Channel One. "This is not how I wanted to end my career," he said after pulling out before he was due to compete in the men's figure skating short programme.
The veteran had taken to the ice for the six-minute warm-up before the start of the men's event where he was bidding to become the first man to win five Olympic figure skating medals after already helping his team to gold.
But with two minutes, 25 seconds to go, he tried a triple axel and stumbled out of it.
The 2006 Olympic champion then skated around the rink holding his back before unsuccessfully trying the jump again.
Mr Plushenko, who was the first up to skate in his group, went over to the referee Mona Jonsson shaking his head, and it was announced that he was withdrawing from the competition.
He bowed and waved to spectators as he left the rink to muted applause from the stunned and deflated crowd. "I am sorry for my fans and for everybody, but I tried till the end. I almost cried. It's hard, believe me. I am very disappointed. But I tried to do my best," he explained.
"Yesterday, I fell on the quad toe in training and I felt a problem in my back. Today I went into training to see what I could do but I couldn't jump. I tried and tried and tried today. In the warm-up I did the triple loop and triple lutz, but after the first triple axel I stepped out and felt terrible pain in my leg and the second one was just a terrible landing. I couldn't feel my legs after it. It hurt and that was it, I had to withdraw."
It was a second comeback in Sochi for Mr Plushenko who had retired first after winning gold in Turin in 2006, and again after taking silver behind American Evan Lysacek in Vancouver in 2010.
He also won silver in Salt Lake City in 2002.
"I see my future in show performances. But I need to treat my back, it is worrying me very much." Mr Plushenko underwent back surgery last year, the latest in twelve operations he had endured over the years on his back and knees.
As Russia have only one men's berth in Sochi the possibility of substituting Mr Plushenko would only have been allowed on medical grounds, but the deadline for replacing injured skaters passed at 1000 a.m. local time Monday.
If he had withdrawn earlier another Russian skater, such as 18-year-old national champion Maxim Kovtun, could have taken his place.
Mr Kovtun's flop at the Europeans had opened the way for Plushenko to compete in his fourth Olympics.
Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko suggested that Mr Plushenko could have withdrawn earlier, but sympathised with his plight. "The injury did not get worse after the team competition but Zhenya (Plushenko) had the choice (to pull out)," said Mr Mutko.
"He and (coach Alexei) Mishin took the decision that he would compete (in the individual). But then during training and today just now, it was the back again. We could only have made a substitution the night after the team competition. And (Maxim) Kovtun was in any case not ready." He paid tribute to Plushenko.
"Zhenya carried out the task at the Olympics. The task was to win the team competition and it was won. The health of the sportsman comes first. He has a serious back injury."