Russia’s Olympic flop sparks Soviet nostalgia

A wave of public anger, soul-searching and nostalgia for the

Soviet era swept Russia after its dismal showing at the Vancouver

Games, leaving many wondering what has gone wrong since the Soviet

Union did whatever was necessary to reap Olympic gold.

President Dmitry Medvedev quickly brought Soviet-style methods

back to bear this week by initiating a purge of sporting officials

and demanding assurances that the debacle will not be repeated when

Russia hosts the Winter Games in Sochi in 2014.

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, and Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko went on state

television to prostrate himself, bemoaning Russia’s “backward

infrastructure, the loss of the national coaching school and

systemic problems in training.”

But top athletes and wealthy sponsors said that neither money

nor another witch hunt will relieve the deeper social and economic

problems that caused humiliation at the Vancouver games, Russia’s

worst showing ever. 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 brought home only 15 medals, putting it in 11th place in

the medals count with only three golds.

Endemic corruption and the failure to invest in infrastructure

were chief among the country’s perceived ills.

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 powerhouse, 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. Thanks to her, Slovakia got its

first Winter Olympic gold medal ever in Vancouver.

In a series of interviews, Olympic figure-skating champion Irina

Rodnina, who won three gold medals for the Soviet Union before

moving to the United States in 1990 to work as a coach, decried the

laziness and cronyism of Russia’s sports managers, who are often

accused of favoring their friends or those with money.

“They have no more fear!” she told Komsomolskaya Pravda, a

mass circulation daily. “Too many of the federation managers treat

their work like a family business, like their own little

concession,” Rodnina said.

In the Soviet Union, 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, which are 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.

The results were obvious. 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.

Many of those victories 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 of the

country’s biathletes and cross-country skiers were suspended in the

past year for using the blood-boosting drug EPO.

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 into a discussion of 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.