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Analysis & Opinion
26.02.10 Scaling Mount Olympus
By Tom Balmforth

As Vancouver 2010 comes to a close, it will be a worried Russian delegation that is officially handed the Olympic standard in preparation for the Sochi 2014 Winter Games on Sunday. Russians will want to avoid a repeat of this year’s feeble haul of medals on home ground in 2014. But what went wrong in Vancouver? Even Russia’s much-vaunted ice hockey team collapsed in the quarter-finals, and to make matters worse Russia was at the center of a judging debacle that made its superstar figure skater look like a childishly bad loser.

With only three gold medals and languishing in tenth place in the overall Olympic rankings, the Russian team has confounded high expectations back home of a solid haul of medals ahead of the Sochi 2014 Olympic Games. Russia could still take a medal in the men’s biathlon relay tonight, as well as in downhill skiing on Sunday, but it will not bridge the gap between expectations in the lead-up to the games and the reality of Russia’s mediocre 13 medal total at the competition’s tail-end.

Forty-three percent of Russians actually expected their team to take the most medals overall, according to a January survey by a state-owned Russian pollster VTsIOM. Russia’s face has been saved by golds from Nikita Kryukov in the men’s sprint ski event, Yevgeny Ustyugov in biathlon, and the women’s relay biathlon team. In addition Russia has four silvers and six bronzes, with just three days left until the closing ceremony. “As it stands at the moment, this really is the worst winter games in history,” said Artem Agapov, a sports analyst at RIA Novosti. The VTsIOM poll found that 48 percent of Russians believed that figure skating was a sure-fire gold, but the Russian team will have to make do with silver.

Moreover, the manner of Russia’s defeats has been just as bad as the poor haul. Russia was stunned when reigning Olympic champion Yevgeny Plyushchenko, who led after the first round, took silver in the second run after landing a quadruple spin, losing out to (of all people) an American, Evan Lysacek, who had not even attempted the notoriously tricky maneuver. A sulky Plyushchenko then criticized the judges and was rumored to have privately awarded himself “platinum,” although he has since flatly denied these reports. The judging fiasco then assumed international proportions when the ever-patriotic Prime Minister Vladimir Putin waded into the controversy with a communiqu? to Russia’s figure skating celebrity that his silver was really “worth gold.”

But whether or not the claim of “we was robbed” has any true basis, the capitulation of the Russian men’s ice hockey team left little room for doubting that Russia’s Olympic star is on the wane. The celebrity hockey team entered the Winter Games as reigning world champions chasing gold, but will walk away empty-handed after being thrashed in the quarter-finals by the Canadians. The seven to three routing by the hosts marked the first time Russia had lost to Canada in Olympic ice hockey since the 1960 games in Squaw Valley. “It’s no secret that we were expecting at very worst a silver medal from our hockey players. We thought it would be a Canada-Russia final,” said Agapov.

So what went wrong? Theories abound. In an article for RIA Novosti, Alexander Arkhangelsky, a questing member of the liberal intelligentsia, linked Russia’s dismal performance in the Winter Games to the political stagnation that currently characterizes the country. Russia, he says, is a political halfway house reaping neither the benefits of liberal democracy like America (first in Olympic tables with 32 medals) nor authoritarianism like China (eighth place with nine medals). In such “ambivalent” conditions there can be no long-term strategy and therefore no success at the Olympics.
Well, maybe.

But the most common theory was voiced by Tatyana Tarasova, Russia’s revered figure skating coach considered to be the most successful skating trainer in history. According to Tarasova, the problem is that today’s generation of Olympic athletes missed out on the crucial years of training during the chaotic early 1990s. Agapov agreed. “We are getting bad results because the athletes who are competing today suffered from the lack of government sports financing in the early 1990s,” he said.

This theory raises the question of how Russia has nonetheless consistently churned out tennis stars, as well as a series of footballers who have caught the eye and been snapped up by some of Europe’s top football clubs (even if Russia’s national team failed to qualify for the 2010 World Cup).

The simple answer is that sports like football require far less infrastructure than winter ones, and as for Russia’s tennis players, they have all been trained individually, often abroad, and as such didn’t suffer from the lack of government funding in sports. Winter sports require considerable investment in equipment and would-be winter athletes need to be trained from a young age, which is why Vancouver in particular has highlighted the current predicament.

But is Russia therefore doomed to be blushing again, on home soil, come 2014? Agapov said there was room for hope. “Vancouver is a low point. We expected a lot of medals from our athletes, but if you take a closer look, they are young. In, say, figure skating, the pairs haven’t been together long,” he said. These young athletes will therefore gain a lot of experience from Vancouver and will be in a strong position at Sochi after four more years of training, as well as benefiting from home support.

The mayor of Sochi is due to officially receive the Olympic standard on Sunday, but President Dmitry Medvedev has made it clear that he will not be attending the Vancouver 2010 closing ceremony. As winter athletes and enthusiasts alike look ahead to Sochi 2014, Russia’s trainers will be looking to spare their blushes in front of the home crowd.

But saving face at Sochi won’t be just about winning more medals, but also about placating furious ecologists who are concerned with the preparations taking place ahead of the 2014 games and their impact on the ecology of the Sochi are, which is home to a national park and a unique eco system.

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) piled on the pressure in this regard when it announced its withdrawal from a partnership with the Russian Olympic construction team in Sochi, the Kommersant news daily reported. WWF deliberately chose the first day of the Vancouver games to publically condemn the construction being carried out on Sochi as “out of control.”

The four years till Sochi give the Russian Olympic team some leeway, but as it stands, both on the ice and off it, Russia has its work cut out if the 2014 winter games are to be something Russians will be proud of.
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