There’s more than talent on the ice at this year’s Winter Olympics. When the camera is on Russia’s figure skating king Evgeni Plushenko, the extreme talent on display is matched only by the extreme back pain he is obviously experiencing.
Plushenko has taken extended breaks during his career due to frequent back and knee injuries. Apparently he was told his low back pain was due to a herniated disc, because in November 2012 he had what sounds like chemonucleolysis, where an injected chemical is used to dissolve a herniated disc nucleus.
When that failed to stop his pain, he headed to Israel in January 2013, where he underwent artificial disc replacement (ADR)—he likely spent $45,000+. The purported purpose of ADR is to retain natural spinal motion that prevents disc degeneration above and below the affected disc (an expected consequence of spinal fusion). No ADR manufacturer has ever evaluated that claim in clinical trials, but I digress.
Now, over a year later, Plushenko still has severe back pain, grabbing his low back with every practice jump. Everyone, including Plushenko himself, seems to treat it as normal and expected. I am mystified. The pain was supposedly due to a herniated disc, and his new artificial one can’t herniate. So why would he (or anyone else) expect to still be in pain?
Instead of focusing on an anatomical cause for Plushenko’s back pain, I find it more useful to look at his alignment and function, both of which are readily improvable. In the photos below, I compare him to Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu, another top male figure skater who doesn’t have back pain. The red arrows follow their belt lines, or the angle of the top of the pelvis.
Standing: Notice the contrast between Plushenko’s completely horizontal belt line versus Hanyu’s slightly downward-tilted belt line. Plushenko’s gluteal muscles are largely inactivated, meaning his flat low back has to both stabilize him and absorb much higher impact forces. Notice also how Plushenko’s right hip and left shoulder are twisted forward.
Circling: Plushenko has to angle his body much more from vertical to achieve the same forward pelvic angle as Hanyu, and also uses his upper body to create that angle (the upper body backwards extension gives the impression of more gluteal definition than he actually has. Contrast that with Hanyu’s glutes while he maintains a flat upper back). The right hip and left shoulder twist are more pronounced here, while Hanyu faces squarely forward with no upper body compensation.
Pushing Off: Plushenko’s low back is completely flat, and his glutes are much smaller than Hanyu’s. His upper body and head lean way forward, while his arms are high and wide for balance (the twisting is still present). In contrast, Hanyu has a well-defined lumbar curve and gluteal muscles, and his head is in line with the rest of his body—he is in perfect balance.
Plushenko’s long back pain journey saddens me for many reasons, but especially because it has cut short the career of the man Scott Hamilton calls the greatest male figure skater in history.