MOSCOW (Reuters) - Former champion Yevgeny Plushenko has been controversially picked as Russia’s only male figure skater for the Sochi Olympics as the hosts selected a record 223 athletes to participate at the sporting extravaganza.
Plushenko, who has won medals at three successive Games including gold in 2006, had initially ruled himself out of contention for next month’s Olympics after failing to win the national championships in December.
But he then had a change of heart and was chosen for the only spot in Sochi despite opting to skip this month’s Europeans where the other three Russian contenders finished in the top five.
Plushenko had to complete a test skate behind closed doors on Tuesday.
Russian Olympic Committee president Aleksandr Zhukov tried to deflect questions on why Plushenko was picked ahead of national champion Maksim Kovtun and European medallists Sergei Voronov and Konstantin Menshov.
“First of all this should be a question addressed to the Russian Figure Skating Federation,” Zhukov told reporters.
“However, federation president Aleksandr Gorshkov told me in more detail the reasons behind this choice. During his test skate Plushenko only had to skate his free programme as we had seen his short programme at the Russian championships.
“Everything was of the highest possible quality as Yevgeny produced two quadruple jumps and two triple Axels.”
While controversial showman Plushenko will be making his fourth Olympic appearance, 15-year-old Yulia Lipnitskaya will make her debut after being named as the youngest member of Russia’s squad.
She stunned the figure skating world by grabbing European gold in Budapest last week.
Albert Demchenko, 42, is the oldest member of the team. The 2006 Turin silver medallist in the luge is set to compete in his seventh Winter Games.
The hosts are targeting medals in 11 out of 15 sports that will be contested at the February 7-23 Games.
The Russian delegation contains 46 more athletes than Vancouver four years ago.
Sports Minister Vitaly Mutkotwo said two-thirds of the squad would be making their Olympic debuts.
“The average age of the team will be 22-1/2 years, it’s a young team,” said Mutkotwo.
“These are the results of a four-year programme and we have laid some solid foundations for the future.”
Zhukov added: “(Being competitive in) 11 sports is significantly more than was the case in Vancouver.
“We are hoping the sportsmen and women can produce their best results in Sochi.”
Editing by Pritha Sarkar