Since the fall of the Soviet Olympic machine, it has become increasingly apparent that Russia isn't the great winter sports nation that it once appeared to be.
In the nine Winter Olympics from 1956 to 1988, the Soviet Union topped the overall medal table every time but two (1968 and 1980). In both of those Games, it finished second, one medal behind. Since 1992, however, its place in the overall medal counts has been slipping: second, third, third, sixth, fifth, and sixth.
Not awful by any means. Russia was still a force in figure skating, cross-country, and biathlon – where its traditional strengths lie. But it was hardly the superpower of old.
Well, Soviet days are here again.
With competition finished Sunday, Russia has topped both the gold and overall medal tables with 13 golds and 33 total medals. Neither is a record, but neither is far off. The Canadians won 14 golds in Vancouver, while the Americans won 37 total medals. The 33 medals is the fourth-best total ever.
How did Russia go from 15 medals and only three golds in Vancouver to the huge haul here in Sochi?
There are a few reasons:
The golden Victors. Victor An and Victor Wild were having problems with their national federations. An, a South Korean actually named Hyun-soo Ahn, had constantly been at loggerheads with South Korean short-track speedskating authorities. At one point, a controversy over An resulted in the team being split in half and refusing even to dine in the same room.
Though that was eventually solved, An fell out of favor in Korea and didn't even compete in the 2010 Olympics. In order to continue his career, he considered gaining Russian or American citizenship. Reportedly, he chose Russia because the citizenship process was simpler. He became Victor An.
In Sochi, as the anchor of the Russian team, he won three gold medals and a bronze.
Meanwhile, Wild, an American from the Pacific Northwest, found that the US Ski and Snowboard Association, which funds national-team athletes, had little interest in his event: snowboard parallel giant slalom. USSA was focused on the other, "cooler" snowboard disciplines.
So Wild, who had a Russian wife, was wooed by the Russian snowboard federation, which essentially promised to give him access to the best of everything. He became a Russian citizen and won two gold medals here, one in parallel giant slalom and the other in parallel slalom.
Take away those six medals, and the US tops the overall medal table and Norway tops the gold medal table.
For the record, the US got no medals in either snowboard racing event, and An won one fewer medal than the entire South Korean short track team.
Both Victors helped carry the Russian flag in the closing ceremony.
Home sweet home. Host nations always overperform. Part of this has to do with supportive crowds. Part of it has to do with competing in a country where all the home comforts are familiar – from cooking to language to culture. But part of it is familiarity with the venues.
This is particularly true in the sliding sports. Knowing the nuances of a track – having gone down it hundreds of times – is an enormous advantage. The US used it to win seven medals in bobsled, skeleton, and luge in Salt Lake. The Canadians did the same with a respectable four medals in Whistler. On the Sanki track here, the Russians won six medals (three gold) in the three sports.
If the Olympics had been held somewhere else, the total would likely have been lower. In Whistler, for example, the Russians took two medals – bronzes in two-man bobsled and men's skeleton.
Money, money. In Vancouver, the Russian figure skaters won no gold medals and only two overall (a silver for Evgeny Plyushchenko and a bronze for their ice dancers). That was not going to happen on home ice. Russia came up with a four-year plan and now has the deepest roster in figure skating.
While the pool for men's singles is shallow, Adelina Sotnikova and Yulia Lipnitskaya both could have medaled in the singles event here, and a third girl, phenom Elena Radionova, was too young to compete. Meanwhile, Russia finished third and fifth in ice dancing; first, second, and sixth in pairs; and first in the new team competition by a wide margin.
Depth. Russia won a medal in 10 different sports, showing its breadth. The US and Canada medaled in nine.
So was it a bad Olympics for Team USA? Well, it might have been had the International Olympic Committee not decided to add 12 new events since Vancouver, including slopestyle for skiing and snowboarding and halfpipe skiing.
If all the new events had never been introduced, Team USA would have finished fifth in the overall medal table with 19 and eighth in the official Olympic gold medal table with four, behind Belarus.
Instead, this was the best performance by the US in a Winter Olympics not in North America, the United States Olympic Committee said Saturday.
True. But also not really true.
Yes, the US won nine gold medals and 28 medals overall, both the highest totals ever for a non-North American Winter Olympics and good for fourth and second place here, respectively. But as the Olympics expands to include new sports, it becomes comparatively easier to drive up medal counts. In Sochi, for example, 295 medals were handed out.
By contrast, only 67 medals were handed out in the 1952 Oslo Winter Games, but the US won 11 of them. That's a higher winning percentage (16 percent to 9 percent here).
Then again, Team USA finished second in the overall medal count then, too, the same as here. So who are we to quibble?
Since the 2002 Salt Lake Games, the Winter Olympics have changed radically for the USA. Between 1952 and 2002, Team USA never finished higher than third in the overall medal count at a Winter Olympics. Since then, it has never finished lower than second.
In Sochi, that streak continued.