Russia poised to flex Soviet-era muscle in Athens Olympics

This year's group of Russian athletes - said to be the best since the collapse of the Soviet Union - hopes to win at least 30 medals at the Olympics.

Tucked away in the pine-scented forests south of Moscow, the large gray building looks like any other drab and broken Soviet relic.

But inside this anonymous hall is a modern dream factory, the heart of Rus- sian boxing, where the nation's finest pugilists hope to spearhead a return to Russian domination of the Olympics.

Russians say they have finally turned a corner since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, which threw into disarray the elaborate state training system and sports schools designed to create world champions.

"It's not easy, but it's not impossible, and when you have that amount of drive, you will find a way," says Alexander Alexeyev, a 23-year-old heavyweight (200 lbs.) medal hopeful, whose calloused knuckles, half-flat nose, and Zen-like equanimity attest to the years of training and competition that yield a top athlete.

"I'm going to the Olympic Games for one purpose - to win," says Mr. Alexeyev, who won the European championships this year, and took second in the 2003 world championships in Bangkok.

Russian boxers at the 2000 Sydney Games took home seven medals: two gold, three silver, and two bronze. And after capturing nine of 11 categories at the European championships last March, they expect to snag more of the prized medallions in Athens.

It's all part of a passionate bid by Russia's 470-strong Olympic team to assume the mantel of the "big red machine" - past Soviet teams who wowed the world with their prowess. No one believes that Russia can garner 80 gold medals - the Soviet record from the 1980 Moscow games, which were boycotted by the US over Moscow's invasion of Afghanistan - or even the haul of 55 golds that beat the US team at Seoul in 1988. But Russian officials predict "at least" 30 golds, on par with the 32 they won in Sydney. That result gave Russia second place after the US, which took home 40 gold medals.

"I think the attitude to sport in our country is higher class than it was in Soviet times," said Leonid Tyagachev, head of the Russian Olympic Committee, who as sports minister organized a meeting headed by President Vladimir Putin to asses the current state of sports in Russia. "We feel the official support and hope it will be still better in the future," he said.

Reversing years of decay in Soviet-era sports facilities, officials say 20 new sports centers have been built in the past four years. All Russian athletes are undergoing stringent doping tests to avoid the embarrassment that stripped Russian cross-country skiers of gold medals at the 2002 Salt Lake City games.

"For the first time in recent years, our team is ready to give a serious fight to the Americans, Chinese, Germans, and French," Mr. Tyagachev announced last month. "We have a strong team, strong coaches, and ... every athlete [is] striving for a victory."

Indeed, the government has added to the glory of victory with plans to pay medalists tax-free bonuses of $50,000, $30,000, and $20,000 for gold, silver, and bronze, respectively. Olympic officials say they also hope to add at least $60,000 for each gold from private funds.

"Sports [in Russia] is the national health and the national prestige," says Vasily Wolf, a boxing team coach. "Everyone wants that national flag to be raised and the national anthem to be played."

Russia has traditionally done well in gymnastics - remember Olga Korbut? - men's diving, and synchronized swimming. Officials here say that fresh progress is also being made in track and field and swimming - areas where Americans have been dominant in recent games.

In Athens, a widely anticipated face-off will be over the women's pole vault, where Russian world-record holder Yelena Isinbayeva is to compete against the Olympic record holder American Stacy Dragila.

Sports observers in Russia say it may be too soon to speak of a renaissance. There is still a wide gap between Olympic-caliber athletes and the next generation of stars. But few doubt that this team is the strongest fielded by Russia since the Soviet Union splintered into 15 countries, leaving key talent in the newly independent nations of Ukraine, Belarus, and Central Asia. In Atlanta in 1996, Moscow sent its first Russia-only team since 1912.

And this Olympic team could burnish Russia's somewhat battered sense of national pride. "In the past, we had many things to be proud of, like space research and famous ballet, and only in sport Russia still has leading positions," says Lev Rossoshik, deputy editor of Moscow's Sport-Express newspaper.

"Ninety percent of all sportsmen going to Athens are brought up by trainers of the Soviet sport schools - in fact, they are still a product of old Soviet times," says Mr. Rossoshik. "Russian sport faces the same problem as Russian art or science. Many trainers left Russia in the 1990s when sport was abandoned."

But the story is not all negative, and some sports are now finding new talent.

"We lost our famous sport schools, where enthusiastic coaches could attract talented youth," says Anna Dmitrieva, a former tennis star and deputy head of the NTV-plus sports channel.

"But having lost it, we also gained: We became more free. In tennis for instance, we can use the achievements of foreign specialists now, and we had nothing like that in the past," says Ms. Dmitrieva. "We lost our position in some disciplines [rowing, archery] but gained in others where we were not strong."

Overcoming the hurdles seems to be half the battle for Russian Olympians, especially as Soviet-era coaches fade, along with their achievements at the head of a system meant to demonstrate the superiority of the communist Soviet man.

"The problem is when you start to get good, you have to give all your force to training," says boxer Alexeyev, from the Volga River city of Samara, as he is fitted for his Olympic uniform. "You need to eat and to pay for your life. That is our problem now. The Olympic team has presidential grants and subsidies, but at lower levels there is only money for food. You need to look for sponsors."

Today, young athletes born into sporting families often have an advantage. Alexeyev's father, Vyacheslav, was the Soviet boxing champ in 1971 and competed twice against American boxers. Today the two are one of at least three father-son teams on the national boxing squad.

Things have changed since boxing gloves were 10 rubles a pair (today they cost 1,500 rubles, or $55) and they were given out by sports schools, says the father. His coaching and boxing contacts have been indispensable to his son's success.

"I wanted so much to become a great boxer, I worked so hard, but I didn't become a great boxer like my son," says Vyacheslav, whose gnarled hands manifest the broken bones of years of combat in the boxing ring. "Our children must be better than us, achieve more than us, and be more intelligent than us - that is progress."

Bringing such progress to the Chekhov training camp is what drives Russian boxers. President Putin, a judo master, visited the camp earlier this year. A pristine American-made Everlast boxing ring is the centerpiece of the place. Inspirational portraits of Soviet and Russian champions and medal-winners adorn the walls, along with a huge blue, white, and red-striped Russian flag at one end.

A score of boxers sweat profusely as they hone their skills on punching bags, skip rope, and then finish workouts with weight checks.

Besides developing their physical prowess, Russia's boxers also study videos of their opponents in action and work on mental focus and toughness. That's what makes an Olympian these days, says father Vyacheslav, who has high hopes for Alexeyev's medal chances.

"He's a friend of his head," says the father, who had coached Alexeyev since he was 9. "He's quite intellectual, and is very good with tactics."

"It's a struggle not only of fists, but of the intellect. You must think, 'How will I fight?' " concurs Alexeyev.

"Think of a moment of danger: When you are frightened by a dog, you can jump three meters high," says Alexeyev. "If you can concentrate that [energy burst], you can do unbelievable things."

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