With Steven Seagal in tow, Putin pushes for Soviet-era phys-ed revival

The Russian president said that a revival of the Soviet-era mass physical training program, albeit in a less ideological form, is necessary for the health of his country's children.

By , Correspondent

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    Russian President Vladimir Putin (l.) and US movie actor Steven Seagal visit a new sports arena in Moscow, Wednesday. Mr. Putin has called for the revival of the Soviet-era physical evaluation program that required all schoolchildren to pass fitness tests.
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As he often likes to do, Vladimir Putin hobnobbed with a Hollywood celebrity – macho actor Steven Seagal – Wednesday.

The two opened a Moscow martial arts center and Mr. Putin rolled out his plan to reinstate a Soviet-era mass sports program designed to make Russian youngsters more healthy, active, and fit for military service.

After touring Moscow's huge new Sambo-70 sports school (sambo is a mixture of judo and wrestling) accompanied by a black-clad Mr. Seagal, Putin said that something drastic had to be done about the health of Russia's children, two-thirds of whom, he said, suffer from chronic illnesses by the age of 14.

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"We should not have any children who, as they say, sit on the bench during physical education classes. Everyone should practice sports, everyone without exception," Putin said.

His solution, which has been widely welcomed in Russia's sports establishment, is to revive the Soviet-era mass physical training program which was known as GTO, after its motto, which schoolchildren were required to repeat: "Gotov k Trudu i Oboronye" (Ready for Work and Defense).

"I think it would be quite appropriate to recall the positive experience of past decades when the so-called GTO, was in use in our country," Putin said.

"The revival of this system – in a new, modern format – could bring major benefits.... Children should become strong, they should be healthy, love sports and have an opportunity to practice them, should know how to defend themselves, their loved ones, their family. Ultimately, they should be able to defend their motherland," he said, according to a transcript published on the Kremlin's official website.

Putin flourish

The presence of Seagal, star of action films like "Under Siege" and "Above the Law," is a typical Putin flourish that carries little political significance. Putin seems to enjoy the company of Western celebrities, even going so far as to bestow Russian citizenship on his "good friend" Gerard Depardieu.

At other times he's praised the manliness of Leonardo DiCaprio at a St. Petersburg "Save the Tigers" summit, and serenaded a roomful of stars, including Goldie Hawn, Sharon Stone, and Mickey Rourke with his rendition of "Blueberry Hill."

No one is sure how the proposed mass sports plan might work, but Putin himself said it should be done without the ideological overtones present in the Soviet program, and should be aimed at creating a set of nationwide guidelines that all schools and communities would be required to follow.

"I think it's a great idea," says Vladimir Voronkov, a famous Soviet athlete who won a gold medal for cross-country skiing at the Sapporo Winter Olympics in 1972.

"Mass sport has degraded so much in this country that young people can't run, or lift themselves, much less engage in serious physical activity. They grow up big, but they're weak.... When I was a kid there were free facilities everywhere, and just about everyone went in for sports. We need to get back to that, revive the GTO idea. We've forgotten everything good in our past," he says.

Others stress the military angle.

Readying boys for the army

"In Soviet times, the GTO program in schools prepared people for life, and readied boys for the army," says Dmitry Galochkin, head of the security commission of the Public Chamber, a Kremlin-sponsored assembly of civil society groups.

"Russia has long frontiers, and we need a reliable mobilization reserve for our armed forces. Reinstating GTO will not only help prepare youths for military service, it will give them a social lift as well," he says.

Thanks to a severe drop in birthrates, especially during the 1990s, Russia faces a tough shortage of conscripts for its still largely draft-based armed forces. And if the health of the upcoming generation is as bad as Putin suggested in his remarks at the sambo school, the Russian army is going to be seriously depleted in the next decade.

At the same time, Putin just last month called for a "drastic upgrade" of Russia's armed services in response to a variety of external threats the country allegedly faces. In particular, he ordered generals to return to a one-million man army, a task that many experts say is demographically unattainable.

Critics say the whole idea is probably just window dressing to distract Russians from the financial sinkhole that the upcoming Sochi Winter Olympics have become for Russia's state treasure – now estimated to be the most expensive Olympics in history, with a price tag of $50 billion.

"After all that money has disappeared into thin air, this might be a good time to tell Russians that the authorities don't just support professional sports but are also interested in promoting mass sports as well," says Eduard Sorokin, an expert with Stadion, a Moscow sports consultancy.

"We need to have sports facilities of all kinds, in every community, accessible for all people, and then you'll see improvements. But that's something most Russian youths can only dream of," he adds.

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