Russia’s Olympic flop prompts soul-searching ahead of Sochi 2014 Winter Games

By Simon Shuster, AP
Thursday, March 4, 2010

Russia’s Olympic flop sparks Soviet nostalgia

MOSCOW — Anger and Soviet nostalgia are sweeping Russia after its dismal showing at the Vancouver Olympics, triggering a purge of sporting officials in an effort to prevent another humiliation when the nation hosts the Winter games in Sochi in 2014.

President Dmitry Medvedev quickly revived Soviet-era methods this week by firing top sporting chiefs and demanding assurances that the debacle will not be repeated on home soil.

In calling for “those responsible” to resign, Medvedev lamented that Russia “has lost the old Soviet school … and we haven’t created our own school — despite the fact that the amount of money that is invested in sport is unprecedentedly high.”

The cull reached to the top of the sporting world Thursday as Russian Olympic Committee chief Leonid Tyagachev handed in his resignation. Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko went on state television to repent bemoaning Russia’s “backward infrastructure, the loss of the national coaching school and systemic problems in training.”

Vancouver was Russia’s worst Olympic showing ever: The country brought home only 15 medals, three gold, placing it 11th in the medals table. In nine Winter Olympics from 1956 to 1988, the Soviet Union failed to top the medal standings only twice, finishing runner-up on those occasions.

In communist days, Olympic athletes had much to fear from a bad performance. They stood to be sent back into the ranks of the Soviet masses, losing their status as national heroes and their ability to travel abroad, not to mention their generous salaries.

The Soviet Union was also known for using the Olympics — particularly the Winter Games so suited to its climate — as a potent propaganda tool against the West and a way of glorifying the communist ideology when it was struggling in other arenas to compete with capitalism.

Many Soviet Olympic triumphs were suspected of being tainted by doping, as detection methods were far weaker then and political pressure sometimes prompted sports officials to look the other way.

In Vancouver, Russian athletes were under particular scrutiny for performance enhancing drugs after more than half a dozen biathletes and cross-country skiers were suspended in the past year for using the blood-boosting drug EPO.

Top athletes and wealthy sponsors said that neither money nor another witchhunt will relieve the deeper social and economic problems that caused sporting disaster in Vancouver.

They pointed to everything from widespread corruption to the outflow of talent and even the very financial system Russia adopted after the fall of communism.

“The Soviet system of sports has passed, and in its pure form, it is not compatible with the realities of the market economy,” billionaire industrialist Mikhail Prokhorov, who heads Russia’s biathlon federation and owns a stake in the New York Nets basketball team, wrote in a blog post Monday. “Money is not the issue.”

Examples of Russia’s social ills also abounded in the surge of newspaper and magazine articles demanding to know why the Russian team had fared so poorly. Endemic corruption and the failure to invest in infrastructure were chief among them.

The Trud daily ran an editorial under the banner: “The jumpers don’t have trampolines and the sledders don’t have sleighs,” pointing out that Russia does not have a professional-grade bobsledding course, while tracks for speed skating exist only in Moscow. And while Russia is a hockey power, it has far fewer rinks than the U.S. and Canada.

Many top Russian athletes have moved abroad to get access to better sports infrastructure and up-to-date coaching. Anastazia Kuzmina had competed for her native Russia in the biathlon before switching allegiances in 2008 to Slovakia. Thanks to her, the tiny central European nation got its first Winter Olympic gold medal in Vancouver.

On the streets of Moscow, the Olympics were the topic of the day, and people’s disgust with the performance was quick to spill over onto the state of modern Russia. Elvira Ernshtein said her son’s teammate in an amateur hockey league was so disappointed with the medal count that he was surgically removing a tattoo of the Russian flag.

“You know we lost our competitive abilities a long time ago,” said Boris Afanasyev, a 41-year-old businessman.

Associated Press Writer David Nowak contributed to this report.

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