SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - Teenager Yuzuru Hanyu gatecrashed Yevgeny Plushenko’s Russian homecoming with a dazzling short programme that gave Japan the lead as the team event made its Olympic debut at the Sochi Games on Thursday.
Plushenko justified his controversial inclusion in the Russian team with a rousing performance to Tango de Roxanne which he opened with a high-flying quadruple toeloop-triple toeloop combination.
But at 19, Hanyu eclipsed his 31-year-old childhood idol with a flawless programme in which his jumps were higher, spins were quicker and footwork was immaculate.
His score of 97.98 was 6.59 points higher than second-placed Plushenko while Canada’s Patrick Chan failed to live up to his favourite’s tag after a botched triple Axel left him trailing in third.
“I was very scared to go up against Plushenko...(because) he was my hero in childhood,” Hanyu said through a translator.
”That is why I was happy to skate here with him. He is one of the best skaters.
“I just wanted to put all my heart into the performance.”
Chan’s heart, however, seemed to be elsewhere as he failed to conquer a jump that has long been his nemesis.
Despite the mishap, the three-times world champion did not seem too disheartened as he admitted his real focus was on the men’s singles event and he will get a chance to make amends next week.
“There is a lot of buzz and energy so it is sometimes difficult to control the jumps and landings,” Chan told reporters .
“It (today) is like a trial run. There are many times in my career, that I went out on the ice and said ‘awe, I’d like to do it again’. That is the great opportunity of this year’s Olympics,” added the 23-year-old, who will be substituted by team mate Kevin Reynolds in Sunday’s free skate.
For Plushenko, the real challenge will be whether his ageing, aching, patched up body can last the distance during three more performances in Sochi.
Unlike rival nations, the hosts do not have the luxury of substituting Plushenko as they have only one male entrant at these Games.
“All comebacks are hard... but after 12 surgeries on my body, I can skate in my fourth Olympic Games so it is already good,” said the 2006 Turin Games champion who is skating in his first global competition since picking up a silver in Vancouver four years ago.
The U.S., who are also considered medal contenders for the multi-discipline competition, are lagging behind in seventh after Jeremy Abbott had a day to forget by messing up every one of his jumps.
He fell and slammed into the boards following his opening quad, doubled a planned triple Lutz and popped his triple Axel.
It was little wonder Abbott skated off the ice holding his head in disappointment.
“I am very torn about this one honestly because I love being part of team USA. I am torn apart ... that I fell on my butt.”
The team event features 10 nations and each country has one representative competing in men’s singles, women’s singles, pairs and ice dancing. They each perform a short programme after which the top five nations progress to perform a free skate.
Additional reporting by Alissa de Carbonnel, editing by Ed Osmond and Toby Davis