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Russia laments bygone era of Soviet sports
MOSCOW | 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 witchhunt 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 newpaper 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 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.
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