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The Plushenko case: To skate or not to skate?

Absent Russian becomes most present talking point in Budapest
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Evgeni Plushenko manages to generate buzz even when he's not competing. -Getty Images

Even though the Russian star/czar, Evgeni Plushenko, is not physically present at the 2014 European Figure Skating Championships in Budapest, his case is much debated around the rink. The status of his back drives much comment, with all the metal screws and plastic he is enduring. What is at stake is simply Plushenko's participation in the Olympics.

The situation is rather complex for the Russian team, as it has only one men's entry qualified for the Games. Should Plushenko -- who may be the most famous athlete in his country -- skate, or should they qualify 18-year-old Maxim Kovtun instead, with huge potential in front of him, even though he is significantly less famous?

The common understanding in Budapest is that Plushenko would like to skate in the team event and leave Kovtun to skate in the individual event. But this is not possible if the rules are followed. Plushenko would have to skate the team event short and free program, and then the individual short and free as well.

The next question then would be: Could Plushenko withdraw for medical reasons after the team event and be replaced by Kovtun for the individual event, provided there is a serious medical reason?

ISU president Ottavio Cinquanta's traditional press conference in Budapest was mainly devoted to Plushenko's case (although the champion's name was not mentioned), fed by the numerous questions arising from the Russian journalists.

"What happens if you get a medical certificate telling you that a skater suffering an injury has to be replaced?"

"Will you accept a medical certificate from the nation's team, or do you need to have an IOC or ISU doctor?"

"Will there be a difference in the case if he just falls sick or if he has suffered the same injury for years?"

Cinquanta was quick to answer the last question, stating that a country team needed to be as strong as possible.

"If one of your skaters has sustained the same injury for years," he said, "You should not enter him or her."

Cinquanta, helped by director general Fredi Schmid, answered that ISU communication 1844 should clarify the matter. Communication 1844 states: "Teams with only one skater/couple qualified for the individual discipline will have no possibility to bring in a substitute skater/couple for the team event after [the team meeting event, Feb. 5], e.g. replace an active skater/couple due to injury or sickness after the short program with a substitute skater or a similar, even in presence of a medical certificate."

"For entries related to individual figure skating events (pairs skating, men's, ice dance, ladies), it is possible to make athletes replacements only up to and during the team leaders meeting for the figure skating (individual) events scheduled for 10.00 a.m. on Feb. 10, 2014, for the same circumstances as mentioned above (injury and/or sickness)."

"Any replaced athlete will not be able to be re-accredited after the replacement," communication 1844 concludes.

This means that after the Feb. 5 meeting, no skater can be replaced in the team event.

"After that time, any medical certificate will have no effect," Cinquanta pointed out. "The country team will have to stay with the points of its three other team members instead of four."

If Plushenko had to withdraw between the team event short and free programs, his spot on the team would be left vacant, which, of course, would heavily penalize the team.

The next question then would be: Could Plushenko withdraw for medical reasons after the team event and be replaced by Kovtun for the individual event?

By no means, the rule states, at least in the case of Russia, since the replacement skater should already "be part of the accredited delegation on site," as communication 1844 states. And there will be only one accredited man representing Russia: either Plushenko or Kovtun.

The actual answer, which was not too clear in President Cinquanta's answering attempts, may, however, not be as straightforward. The IOC Late Athlete Replacement Policy for the 2014 Olympic Winter Games appears to be a bit less strict, as it states that, "where urgent medical problems arise, or in other exceptional circumstances that are assessed on a case-by-case basis, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) may permit the permanent replacement of one athlete by another ONLY in the same sport and discipline. This can only occur after consultation with the relevant International Federation (IF) and, when deemed necessary by the IOC, an IOC medical expert."

Assessment on a "case by case basis" could leave the door slightly open. If not, it would mean that no skater qualified for the Games and participating in the team event could be replaced, even in the case of illness, for the individual events, after Feb. 5.

During the 2006 Olympic Games, for instance, an injury forced Michelle Kwan to withdraw, and Emily Hughes, who was the U.S. team first alternate, could fly over to Turin to compete. Under this understanding, such occurrences would not be possible in Sochi.

The Plushenko case does not seem to be completely solved yet and may require further clarification.

The safety of the athlete himself might also come high on the agenda. If the hardware present in Plushenko's back had a risk to threaten his physical wellbeing and future, both he, the Russian Federation and the ISU should think twice before letting him participate in the Games.