London 2012 Olympics: Has Russian sports machine broken down?

Russia's sports minister warned of 'disciplinary decisions' in response to a fifth-place overall standing at London 2012. About a fifth of Russians say the Olympics were a 'complete failure' for Russia.

Adrees Latif/Reuters
The words London 2012 are seen on a lanyard around the neck of Russia's Ilya Zakharov as he stretches his gold medal toward photographers after winning the men's 3m springboard final at the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Aquatics Centre August 7.

As a former sports superpower that rarely finished outside the top three in Olympic medal counts, Russians are expressing deep anxieties about a less-than-stellar performance in London this year. 

Though the medal count has grown over the past couple of days, and Russia is currently fifth in overall standings. Many worry that the once great sports machine may be broken, and Russia may be due to be humiliated when it sponsors the Sochi Winter Games in barely two years time

A poll released at the beginning of this week – before the current Russian surge began – found that 69 percent of Russians were "dissatisfied" with Team Russia's Olympic performance. The survey, reported by the official ITAR-Tass agency, found that about a fifth of Russians viewed the Olympics as a "complete failure" for Russia, while about half believed that "this is an unexpectedly bad result." 

The Russian Olympic Committee had put its gold medal target at between 20 and 30 in the Olympics' total of 302 events. Four years ago, in Beijing, the Russian team came in third with 23 gold medals. In Athens, in 2004, Russia also ranked third, with 27 gold medals. At the Sydney Games in 2000, Russia took 32 gold medals. 

At the end of Day 11 of the London Games, Russia was in fifth place – behind South Korea, Britain, the US, and China – with just 10 gold medals, and seemingly little chance to close the gap before the spectacle ends on Aug. 12. 

"Our Olympic performance this year has given rise to all sorts of dark humor," says Alexei Mukhin, director of the independent Center for Political Information in Moscow. "For instance, it was reported that Putin came to London and visited with our Olympic judo team – and then they won! So people say it's Putin's fault other teams fell short, because he failed to visit them." 

Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko has threatened to "to draw very harsh conclusions in certain sports," where teams fail to win enough medals. "It’s almost like war for us," Russian media quoted him as saying. "The main thing is to get to the end and all the disciplinary decisions will be made later."

Yesterday Mr. Putin pledged to "thoroughly analyze" the Olympic results before drawing conclusions. "We failed in some sports disciplines where our organizers and specialists expected medals, and we got gold medals in others where we did not expect," Putin said. 

Only former president and current Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, ever the moderate, chose to look on the bright side. "There are many silver medals this year, we are a silver country, this is good. It means our sport potential remains very high," Mr. Medvedev told journalists yesterday. 

Russia's slide from sports superpower status was on full display at the Vancouver Winter Games two years ago, where Russia finished in sixth place. At that time, sports officials promised to get serious about fighting corruption and improving discipline in the preparations for the upcoming Sochi Winter Games, where teams will be competing on home turf. 

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