Sochi Olympics: Russian athletes yearn to find new glory

Sochi Olympics reignite memories of Soviet successes that brought prestige. Can the 2014 Olympic hosts do well at this year's medal table?

Spiraling human pyramids occupied the field of Lenin Stadium July 19, 1980, during opening ceremonies of the XXII Summer Olympics in Moscow.

Algis Shalna lived a privileged life ahead of the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, then part of Yugoslavia. A native of the then-Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic, Mr. Shalna earned a princely 350 rubles a month when he joined the Soviet Union's national biathlon team. His life revolved around the pursuit of Olympic glory as he was groomed by the formidable Soviet training system to be not only a champion but also a living embodiment of Soviet might.

"Winning was not only winning a medal; it was winning over the world, proving how strong the country is, how proud the country is, how they do things, to show the world," says Shalna, who won a gold medal in the biathlon relay event and went on to coach the US national biathlon team after immigrating to the United States in 1991.

The Olympics, of course, have always been as much about geopolitics and global statements as about athletics: Think Berlin in 1936, Moscow in 1980, Beijing in 2008. And the Sochi Games, which open Feb. 7, are no exception.

To be sure, their image has been battered by corruption, environmental abuse, waste, and the palpable threat of terrorism. But the facilities are cutting edge, aimed at evoking a modern, prosperous, and strong Russia. If Russia's Olympic athletes match that projection of strong showing, scooping up enough golds, silvers, and bronzes to place among the top nations, it will be a defining moment in President Vladimir Putin's 14-year quest to restore his country's standing on the world stage – and to showcase how far Russia has traveled since the stunning collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

"It's not just a question of prestige, but rather, the health and future of our nation," Mr. Putin stated in October as he addressed the heads of Russia's sporting federations.

Vladimir Geskin, a keen observer of the Russian sports scene, echoes that sentiment.

"We feel nostalgic about Soviet times. We were used to the idea that our sportsmen won a lot," says Mr. Geskin, deputy editor of Sport Express, a widely read Russian newspaper. "When the USSR ceased to exist, sport lived on what was left out of [the] Soviet system. And then there was a kind of 'black hole.' "

Putin himself is a product of the Soviet Union, having come of age in an era when the socialist workers' paradise was a sporting force, netting legions of medals and honors in world-class competitions. A vast infrastructure of training facilities, sports medicine, financial incentives, and government ministries nurtured talent at a young age and cultivated champions. At the 1988 Calgary Games, the last Olympics that the Soviet Union appeared in, Soviet athletes took 11 golds, 9 silvers, and 9 bronzes, putting the country at the top of the unofficial ranking of national medal counts.

The Soviet system was an outgrowth of the push in the early days of the socialist republic to build a "new Soviet man," with the Communist Party emphasizing "physical culture" that was much more than just sport: It included – for children and women, as well as men – broader cultural trends, education, and upbringing, according to Susan Grant of University College Dublin and author of "Physical Culture and Sport in Soviet Society."

Later, as the country emerged from isolation after World War II and competed in its first Olympics in 1952, the Games became a showcase for what the Soviet government saw as its superior political and social system.

"Sport, even in the Soviet period, was about producing role models, to emulate them, to be fitter workers, better soldiers. And the other thing was the Soviet project – it was about becoming part of the modern world and sport was part of that," says Robert Edelman, a professor of Russian history and sports at the University of California, San Diego.

"That didn't mean that the country was wealthy or that Communism was successful," he continues. "If anything, the sports masked all the problems they had and all the weakness of the system."

The events of 1991 destroyed all that. Government funding evaporated. Training facilities fell into disrepair or suddenly ended up in foreign countries. The Soviet bobsled track, for example, was in newly independent Latvia, while the speed-skating training facility now belonged to Kazakhstan. Coaches and athletes, meanwhile, fled to the West or struggled to make ends meet.

During Boris Yeltsin's tumultuous presidency in the 1990s, support for sports took a back seat to stabilizing the free-falling economy, dealing with the war in Chechnya, and other existential matters. Well-connected businessmen known as oligarchs manipulated a broken system to take control of hugely valuable industrial assets – often with the Yeltsin administration looking the other way.

After Putin came to power in 1999, he reined in the oligarchs, consolidated state control over the news media, waged another war in Chechnya, and used windfall oil profits to invest in the military, state pensions, and elsewhere. The Kremlin cultivated his image as an avatar of physical health; he has a black belt in judo and regularly exhibits his vigor for activities such as scuba diving, tracking Siberian tigers, or flying paraplanes alongside endangered birds.

The effort reached down into sporting federations, into which the Kremlin poured money from the oil- and gas-fueled economic growth in the 2000s. It also leaned on the country's biggest corporations, and the oligarchs, to support athletes financially.

"Superior sporting results is a reflection of the social and economic development of a country," a 2009 official government "strategy" document stated. "Sporting victories enable the development of a positive image for a country in the international arena."

Still, the investment has yielded mixed results to date. Russia ranked a disappointing fifth in the medal count at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games. The tally was well below promises from top sporting officials; the head of the Russian Olympic Committee resigned as a result, though he later joined the effort to bring the 2014 Games to Sochi.

Virtually no cost has been spared in the effort to establish a platform for Russian glory this month. In addition to the $60 billion-and-counting spent for the infrastructure at Sochi – making these the most expensive Games ever – the government has increased the prize money it will award to medalists. Athletes will receive 4 million rubles ($120,000) for gold medals, 2.5 million rubles ($76,000) for silver, and 1.7 million rubles ($52,000) for bronze. In the past, many have received luxury cars and other perks as well.

By contrast, Shalna, who now owns a country inn near Burlington, Vt., recalls that money was very much played down in his day. He was awarded around 2,000 rubles, and $500, which was significant since most Soviets didn't have access to foreign currency. He also received an apartment free of charge and "permission" to buy a coveted sedan known as a Volga, something only important Soviet citizens owned.

"In our ideology in the past, money wasn't something we were going for. We were going for money and respect," Shalna argues.

Despite the overwhelming attention and investment, however, doubts persist within Russia about spending so much money at a time of serious political and economic problems.

"The very idea of investing so much money at the whim of the leader into his teenager's admiration of Olympic Games in Russia – this may have been used as a pretext for many people to enrich themselves," says Eduard Sorokin, an independent Russian sport journalist and commentator.

"Yes, officials will come. They will like our hospitality; sportsmen will be glad to come and compete," he says. "But I doubt it will tell on the image of the country in a positive way."

• Olga Podolskaya contributed reporting from Moscow.

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