MOSCOW — A wave of public anger, soul-searching and nostalgia for the Soviet era swept Russia after its dismal showing at the Vancouver Games, leaving many wondering what has gone wrong since the Soviet Union did whatever was necessary to reap Olympic gold.

President Dmitry Medvedev quickly brought Soviet-style methods back to bear this week by initiating a purge of sports officials and demanding assurances the debacle won’t be repeated when Russia hosts the Winter Games in Sochi in 2014.

In calling for “those responsible” to resign, Medvedev lamented that Russia “has lost the old Soviet school and we haven’t created our own school, despite the fact that the amount of money that is invested in sport is unprecedentedly high.”

The cull reached to the top Thursday as Leonid Tyagachev, the Russian Olympic Committee chief, handed in his resignation, and Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko went on state television to prostrate himself, bemoaning Russia’s “backward infrastructure, the loss of the national coaching school and systemic problems in training.”

But top athletes and sponsors said neither money nor another witch hunt will relieve the deeper social and economic problems that caused humiliation at the Vancouver Games, Russia’s worst showing. They pointed to everything from widespread corruption to the outflow of talent and even the very financial system Russia adopted after the fall of communism.

“The Soviet system of sports has passed, and in its pure form, it is not compatible with the realities of the market economy,” wrote a billionaire industrialist, Mikhail Prokhorov, who heads Russia’s biathlon federation and owns a stake in the New York Nets basketball team, in a blog post. “Money is not the issue.”

Examples of Russia’s social ills also abounded in the surge of newspaper and magazine articles demanding to know why the Russian team had brought home only 15 medals, putting it in 11th place in the medals count with only three golds.

Corruption and the failure to invest in infrastructure were chief among the perceived ills.

The Trud daily ran an editorial under the banner “The jumpers don’t have trampolines and the sledders don’t have sleighs,” pointing out that Russia doesn’t have a professional-grade bobsledding course, while tracks for speed skating are only in Moscow. And while Russia is a hockey power, it has far fewer rinks than the U.S. and Canada.

Many top Russian athletes have moved abroad to get access to better infrastructure and up-to-date coaching. Anastazia Kuzmina competed for her native Russia in the biathlon before switching allegiances in 2008. Thanks to her, Slovakia got its first Winter Olympic gold medal ever in Vancouver.

In a series of interviews, Olympic figure-skating champion Irina Rodnina, who won three gold medals for the Soviet Union before moving to the United States in 1990 to work as a coach, decried the laziness and cronyism of Russia’s sports managers, who are often accused of favoring their friends or those with money.

“They have no more fear!” she told Komsomolskaya Pravda, a mass circulation daily. “Too many of the federation managers treat their work like a family business, like their own little concession,” Rodnina said.

In the Soviet Union, Olympic athletes had much to fear from a bad performance. They stood to be sent back into the ranks of the masses, losing their status as national heroes and their ability to travel abroad, not to mention their generous salaries.

The Soviet Union was also known for using the Olympics, particularly the Winter Games, which are so suited to its climate, as a propaganda tool against the West and a way of glorifying the communist ideology when it was struggling elsewhere to compete with capitalism.

The results were obvious. In nine Winter Olympics from 1956 to 1988, the Soviet Union failed to top the medal standings only twice, finishing runner-up on those occasions.

Many of those victories were suspected of being tainted by doping, as detection methods were far weaker then and political pressure sometimes prompted sports officials to look the other way.

In Vancouver, Russians were under particular scrutiny for performance-enhancing drugs after more than half a dozen of the country’s biathletes and cross-country skiers were suspended in the past year for using the blood-boosting drug EPO.

In Moscow, people’s disgust with the performance was quick to spill over into a discussion of the state of modern Russia. Elvira Ernshtein said her son’s teammate in an amateur hockey league was so disappointed that he was surgically removing a tattoo of the Russian flag.

“You know we lost our competitive abilities a long time ago,” said Boris Afanasyev, a 41-year-old businessman.


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