Former Olympics powerhouse Russia asks: What happened?
Canada's defeat of the men's hockey team of former Olympics powerhouse Russia is a reminder that post-Soviet Olympians have yet to deliver the showers of golden medals that their USSR-era predecessors took for granted.
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"Political meaning is seen in the Olympics, and now it looks like we are failing in the world arena," says Mikhail Delyagin, an expert with the independent Institute of Globalization in Moscow. "It seems like, in Russia, they shout from every rooftop that [prime minister Vladimir] Putin's plan is a plan for victory. But what do we see? All the boasts about our team proved to be empty words."Skip to next paragraph
Mr. Putin, who as president went to great lengths to secure the 2014 Winter Olympics for Sochi, has staked more than $12 billion of the state's money and his own personal prestige on the Games' success.
Back in the USSR
Others say the blame runs much deeper than current politics, beginning with the 1990's collapse of the USSR's vaunted system of special schools and programs that selected, groomed, and raised children to be Olympic athletes.
"I am deeply disillusioned over the very unsuccessful performance of our Olympic team, but I can't say that I'm surprised," says Anna Dmitriyeva, a former Soviet tennis champion who's now deputy director of Russian television's NTV sports channel. "These poor results show that, even in areas where we thought we were the best, like ski sports, the training of our athletes lags behind that of many countries."
She says the problem is systemic, beginning with the government's failure to preserve any of the Soviet-era programs to promote mass sports and to build athletic excellence. "They thought that we're such a huge country, we'd always have enough great athletes. But it turns out that talent has to be cultivated," says Ms. Dmitriyeva, who was a member of the first Soviet delegation to the Wimbledon tennis championships in 1958.
"We lost our system of sports schools, and now our children have nowhere to go to practice," she says. "And we lost our coaches. Many fine professionals had to go abroad to survive. No one made an effort to keep them at home, and now we see the cumulative results."
With the Sochi Games just four years away, some experts say Russia is going to have to pull out all the stops to get its athletes back in shape.
"We're going to have to make some really tough decisions to ensure that we do not fail in the next Olympic cycle," he said. "Russia has invested too much money, and too much hope and expectation in the coming Sochi Olympics. We have no right to lose on our home turf."