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.

Matt Slocum/AP
Former Olympics powerhouse Russia's Alexander Ovechkin (8) is seen in the second period of a men's quarterfinal round ice hockey game against Canada at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia, Wednesday.

A collective groan went up as Russians awoke Thursday morning to discover that, while they slept, their Olympic hockey team – the legendary Big Red Machine – had gone down to ignominious defeat at the hands of the oft-trounced Canadians.

But the disappointment actually started to set in at least a week ago, as the first fully post-Soviet generation of Russian Olympic athletes hit the Vancouver Games, stumbled, picked themselves up, but have yet to deliver the showers of golden medals that their USSR-era predecessors took for granted.

"All Russia is in shock over the [Vancouver] results," says Irina Rodnina, a former Soviet figure-skating champion turned prominent Russian politician.

Ms. Rodnina blames complacent sports officials and money-obsessed athletes for the slump. "How can we be successful if there is no proper Olympic spirit among the sports bosses, coaches and athletes?" she says.

As of Thursday, Russia stood in fifth place overall, with 13 medals, three of them gold. That puts it far behind the front-running US, which has garnered 28 medals, including seven golds.

Politics to blame?

Some sports fans say they're devastated. "The USSR was a sports superpower, and there was a responsibility that athletes felt toward the people and their country," says Sergei Kalashnikov, a Moscow hockey fan. "Things are different now. It's a shame."

Igor Larin, a sports writer for the Moscow daily Sport-Express, blames capitalism. "The attitude of society has changed [since the demise of the USSR], and athletes have become victims of the cult of cash that came from the West," he says.

This sour mood contrasts sharply with the optimism going in. Just before the Vancouver Olympics opened, the Moscow daily Izvestia leaked an internal memo prepared for the Kremlin by Russia's top sports officials, which confidently predicted that Team Russia would pick up as many as 31 medals in Vancouver, including between seven and 11 golds.

The Kremlin had attached high expectations to the national team's performance in Vancouver, hoping that a strong showing would put Russia front and center in advance of the next Winter Games, which are slated to be held in Sochi, Russia, in 2014.

"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."

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 are catastrophically short of time," former NHL hockey legend and current Russian parliamentarian Vyacheslav Fetisov told the Moscow daily Komsomolskaya Pravda this week.

"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."

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