Injured Plushenko retires from Games, but Russians have other reasons to cheer
Russia's flamboyant figure skater Yevgeny Plushenko pulled out of the Winter Olympics through injury on Thursday in a shock twist that immediately deflated home fans pumped up by an opening victory for their beloved men's ice hockey team.
At the IcebergSkatingPalace, there was disbelief when the announcement came over the public address system that the 31-year-old would not compete in the men's individual figure skating event after he injured himself during his warm-up.
The news came just seconds before Plushenko was due to start his short programme, and left a stunned audience wondering if they had witnessed the end of a glittering career.
Plushenko, a controversial selection for the Games because of the lack of competitive action in the build-up, won his fourth Olympic medal on Sunday when he helped Russia triumph in the inaugural team competition.
But during his warm-up he repeatedly clutched his back.
"I came out for the warm-up... and in the first triple Axel I stepped out and felt like I had a knife in my back," he told reporters.
"And the second triple Axel, it was a horrible one. It was a hard landing and after this I didn't feel my right leg. I took four painkillers and it didn't help. I think it was God saying, 'Yevgeny, enough is enough'."
Image: Evgeny Plyushchenko of Russia withdraws from the competition after warming up during the Men's Figure Skating Short Program at the at Iceberg Skating Palace in Sochi on Thursday
Photographs: Robert Cianflone/Getty Images
Russia down Slovenia in ice-hockey
A few hundred metres away at the futuristic Bolshoy Ice Dome, the mood could not have been more different.
More than 10,000 flag-waving Russian fans roared the men in red to a somewhat laboured 5-2 win over Slovenia, underlining the sport's popularity in Russia and how dearly the home nation would love to win the final held on the last day of the Games.
As ice hockey mania swept Sochi, the United States laid down a marker by thumping Slovakia 7-1, and Canada opened the defence of their title against Norway with a 3-1 victory.
The news of Plushenko's withdrawal, on the sixth full day of competition, took some of the gloss off a day when six medals were decided.
In the mountains, Joss Christensen of the United States won the inaugural men's freestyle skiing slopestyle.
Gus Kenworthy took silver and Nick Goepper the bronze in a U.S. podium sweep, taking pressure off a team that some American media had begun to question as it languished down the medals leaderboard.
"I am shocked. I am stoked to be up here with my friends. America, we did it!" said Christensen, after another bumper crowd at the ExtremePark saw skiers push their acrobatic routines to the limits.
Image: Alexander Popov #24 of Russia skates against Sabahudin Kovacevic #86 of Slovenia in the third period during the Men's Ice Hockey Preliminary Round Group A game at Bolshoy Ice Dome in Sochi on Thursday
Photographs: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
Kowalczyk powers to victory
In the women's cross-country 10km classic, several athletes wore sleeveless tops as temperatures touched 13C in bright sunshine and contestants complained of tough conditions.
Poland's Justyna Kowalczyk powered to victory, but Russian Natalia Zhukova, who finished seventh, told reporters: "It's the first time of my life I've raced in such warm weather."
In the latest weather-related disruption, practice for the men's freestyle skiing aerials event was cancelled because of unseasonably high temperatures.
But organisers played down concerns about the quality of the snow that many athletes have described as slushy and difficult, and which may explain some of the crashes in disciplines ranging from slopestyle to cross country.
"It is a constant battle for winter sports," said Mark Adams, International Olympic Committee spokesman. "We are relaxed but we watch the situation."
Image: Justyna Kowalczyk of Poland collapses at the finish line first in the Women's 10 km Classic at Laura Cross-country Ski & Biathlon Center in Sochi on Thursday
Photographs: Harry How/Getty Images
Germany sweep luge gold
Also in the mountains, France's Martin Fourcade won the men's biathlon 20km individual title, his second gold of the Games.
Back in Sochi, Li Jianrou avoided an early pile-up to win the women's 500 metres short track speed skating, extending China's winning streak at the distance to a fourth Winter Games.
Compatriot Zhang Hong claimed the women's 1,000m speed skating title at the Adler Arena, beating pre-race favourites Heather Richardson and Brittany Bowe of the United States.
In the sliding disciplines, a track worker was struck by a bobsleigh and suffered two broken legs during a practice session, IOC President Thomas Bach told Reuters.
In the last event of the day, the inaugural team relay went to luge powerhouse Germany, making it a clean sweep of all four luge gold medals at the Sochi Olympics.
Germany are top of the medals table with seven golds, ahead of Canada, Norway, the Netherlands and the United States, all on four. Russia are seventh with two.
Image: (L-R) Gold medalists Tobias Arlt, Felix Loch, Tobias Wendl and Natalie Geisenberger of Germany lift their coach Georg Hackl in celebration during the flower ceremony for the the Luge Relay at Sliding Center Sanki in Sochi on Thursday
Photographs: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images