- Associated Press - Saturday, February 22, 2014

SOCHI, Russia (AP) - Alexander Popov believes the Winter Olympics will go down as a landmark event for Russia, and he hopes it will change outside impressions of his homeland.

“What has been done in Sochi is the transformation of one city,” the retired swimming champion and International Olympic Committee member told The Associated Press on Saturday.

Noting the sometimes strained relations between Russia and the West, Popov said he hopes “the image of the games will help change that.” If nothing else, he added, Westerners who visited Sochi will likely head home with a different impression of the former Cold War power.

“If you walk through the (Olympic) park, the look on the faces of Russians who are there, they are extremely happy,” he said. “They are extremely happy to host the games. They are extremely happy to be part of it, to cheer for the athletes, and to show their country.”

Popov spoke at the Omega Pavilion overlooking the massive Olympic complex after a promotional appearance, in which he was joined by another gold medal swimmer, South Africa’s Chad Le Clos.

The Russian team has produced its best Winter Games performance since the breakup of the Soviet Union, claiming 11 golds and leading the overall medal standings with 29 heading into the final day of the Olympics.

Popov said it will be a challenge to match those numbers in 2018.

“We certainly have improved,” he said, noting the three-gold, 15-medal showing at Vancouver four years ago. “But you see, we really need to think and realize what the future is. Today is today, but what is tomorrow? We have to think and plan.”

Intent on avoiding another embarrassing performance in Sochi, the Russians clearly beefed up their winter sports programs heading into a home Olympics.

Will they still have that same determination over the next four years?

“Usually it happens before the games and not after,” Popov said. “We just have to keep the momentum right, not lose the emotion of the games, build on it for future achievements.”

One sport that has certainly enjoyed a surge in popularity is short track.

South Korean-turned-Russian Viktor Ahn was one of the biggest stars of the games, capturing three gold medals and a bronze. Popov was on hand at the raucous Iceberg Skating Palace to watch the final night of short track, when Ahn captured a pair of golds and the noise level climbed even higher than it was when Russia won gold in women’s figure skating.

“It was sensational,” Popov said. “I think short track might become winter sport No. 1 in Russia. It’s so dynamic, so spectacular to watch.”

Sochi’s preparations for the games, by far the most expensive Olympics ever with an estimated cost of $51 billion, were marred by claims of corruption, security fears, human rights issues and hurried construction projects that caused some embarrassing reports in the early days of the games.

But reviews of the games have been generally positive.

“Transportation, security, logistics, excitement and everything, it’s all here,” Popov said.

After Sochi, he will push for the Winter Games to be staged in other nontraditional countries, believing that is the best way to spread the popularity of the Olympics.

Poland, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and China are bidding to host the 2022 Games, along with established winter sports nation Norway.

“The universality of the games is unique, because it goes to places that usually people would not go,” Popov said. “The possibility to explore, to show to the world new areas, to show them the best possible image, which is what the games bring. What else can you wish for? What else can you dream of?”


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