SOCHI, Russia — No one proved a tougher draw when it mattered than the Russians at home in winter.
But woe unto the Russian Olympian who lets his countrymen down at these games.
“I don’t feel pressure right now because I’m here,” hockey star Alexander Ovechkin, Russia’s highest-profile winter athlete, said last week back in the United States. “But I’m sure as soon as I go into Sochi I’m going to feel it.”
They better, since everybody from President Vladimir Putin down to the pensioners at the local McDonald’s nursing a cup of coffee and memories of Soviet-era glory will be keeping a close eye on the medals table. If nothing else, that message is filtering down to the athletes.
“I promise we will take every game as the last one for us,” Alexei Stukalsky told the RIA Novosti news agency. This would sound even braver if it wasn’t coming from a curler. “There are butterflies ahead of the start but it’s normal.”
As it turned out, three-time Olympic medalist Evgeni Plushenko did his part to get Ovechkin, Stukalsky and the rest of Russia’s 250-strong delegation – the largest at these games – off on the right foot.
On the first day of competition, he thrilled an audience papered with locals by layering some schmaltz into his individual routine, then combined with world pairs champions Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov to give Russia the lead in the new event of team figure skating.
Rhythmic chants of “Russia! Russia!” greeted Plushenko as he stepped onto the ice. He turned up the temperature moments later by lifting both arms coming out of a spin in a stylized “Raise the roof” gesture. When Plushenko blew a kiss to the crowd near the end of his skate, well, the Iceberg Arena nearly melted.
“As the host country you want to get out of the gate fast. You need the fans behind you, wanting to see what’s next instead of dreading it,” said Steve Roush, a former chief of sport for the U.S. Olympic Committee who has consulted for Russia, Brazil, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. “Otherwise things can run downhill in a hurry.”
Unfortunately, that last statement describes Russia’s progression since going it alone following the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Russian athletes made up the majority of the “Unified Team” that finished atop the medals tables in 1992, and matched that feat competing on their own at Lillehammer in 1994. But since, they’ve finished third, fifth and fourth, and skidded all the way to 11th at Vancouver in 2010.
They started losing their edge in sports where they were traditionally strong, like hockey, figure skating and cross-country skiing, then compounded the problem by failing to catch the wave of extreme sports that increasingly became part of the Olympic program.
“Put simply,” said Roush, “the people at the top in Russia let the infrastructure erode throughout the post-Soviet era. They had one of the greatest coaching and training programs ever, but they let everything fall apart after the breakup. Some coaches got old, some retired, some left and they never replaced them. They never bothered to hire people with expertise in X-Games sports. …
“They used to boast there were always more athletes back home, but once those from the other republics were spread around, they didn’t have the depth they did once.”
Once Sochi captured the bid for 2014, Russian federation officials compounded the problem by thinking more money would provide a quick fix.
“They spent at least $200 million more ahead of Vancouver than in Torino. They spent three times what anyone else did,” Roush said, “instead of taking a realistic look at how much their facilities and programs were degraded. … That’s why the results (in Vancouver) mystified so many Russians.
“It’s the first time people realized how bare the shelves were. It’s why,” Roush said finally, “they started getting rid of people and cleaning house.”
It’s also why Putin quietly lowered expectations and sports officials offered every gold medalist a $122,000 bonus, overseen investment in new ski-jumping, bobsled and curling training facilities recently, as well as hiring foreign coaches.
In one interesting ploy, former South Korean short-track speed-skating champion Victor Ahn became a Russian citizen, a move that paid off last month when he helped his new countrymen capture the 5,000-meter relay at the European championships. In another, a tear-jerker released last spring about former hockey great Valeri Kharlamov titled “Legend No. 17” seeks to remind Russians about their Big Red Machine – which won 6 of 8 Olympic gold medals in one stretch and nearly stunned Canada in the 1972 Summit Series.
Much of the rest of the world remembers those teams as bullies, but in “17” the tables have been turned. It’s the Canadians who are portrayed as uncaring thugs, and Kharlamov and his mates as cuddly sportsmen playing for the love of the game while fighting off the blandishments of greasy capitalist sports agents.
“I always dream I’m about to play a game with Canadians and kick your (butt),” Kharlamov says in a trailer for the movie with English subtitles, “together with my national team.”
Those were the days.