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
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
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
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