The Power And The Glory
A Brief History of Russia and the Modern Olympic Games.
By Vernon Howell and Carolynne Wheeler
When the fabled Olympic flame wound its way through the streets of Moscow early in July on its journey toward Athens, throngs lined its path to get a glimpse of 120 of Russia’s sports stars who would bear it. Such figures as Pavel Bure, Maria Butyrskaya and Elena Dementyeva helped carry the torch on its winding, 23.5-mile route from Poklonnaya Gora to Red Square — to the delight of some and consternation of others. "What’s Luzhkov up to now?" asked one babushka in the crowd, referring to the pugnacious mayor of Moscow and his well-documented love for spectacle. "No, grandmother," explained a woman standing nearby. "It’s for the Olympics."
The thousands of Russians lining the streets might be forgiven for thinking of greater things than the approaching 2004 Games in Athens. Since Russia, as part of the Soviet Union, joined its first Olympic Games in 1952, the sport competition has become a chance for all nations to set aside their conflicts for a time — or at least play out those conflicts on the less-threatening tracks and fields of sport. And for Russians in particular, the Games have become a kind of sweet agony: after the dissolution of the Soviet sport machine that brought home so many dozens of gold medals, Russian Olympic fortunes have been in steady decline. As this year’s Olympic team works feverishly toward Olympic gold, and Moscow itself prepares a bid to host its own Olympic Games in 2012, the nation is waiting to see if this year, at last, will see a return to the glory of the past.
And the past was glorious indeed, right from when the Soviet team entered its first Olympics in Helsinki in 1952, when its 22 gold and 30 silver medals were second only to the United States. For 25 years, Josef Stalin had placed a great emphasis on sport and physical culture, and every city had its own sport club — from provincial capitals like Khakassia’s Abakan to major centers such as Moscow, Kiev and Tashkent. And that was just for the amateurs. Professional sport programs were rigorous, state-run affairs that produced incredible results; the Soviet Union would finish first in the Olympics of 1956 and 1960 and have a head-to-head competition with the Americans through the 1960s, From 1972’s Munich Games to the 1992 Games in Barcelona, where a unified team of former Soviet republics competed, the Soviet Union had a streak of No. 1 finishes broken only by its boycott of the 1984 Games in Los Angeles.
And the West took notice: the Cold War - era propaganda about Soviet training and discipline was perhaps best captured in the character of a Soviet boxer depicted in the popular 1980s film Rocky IV: the Soviet man-machine played by Dolph Lundgren trained amid computers and ominous looking, dripping hypodermic needles as good-guy, all-American boy Sylvester Stallone lugged trees on his back through the forest.
But there were real-life Soviet Olympic giants in those days, catching the eye of the international community and the admiration of those back home. Larissa Latynina, for instance, is the only athlete in any sport to have won 18 career medals, nine of which were gold. Her spectacular streak started in Melbourne in 1956 with six medals, followed up with the 1960 Rome Olympics where she won six more medals, and wound up with the 1964 Tokyo Olympics with the next six.
The tiny Belarussian gymnast Olga Korbut captured hearts with her legendary performance in Munich in 1972, which brought her four medals. Her little town in Belarus had to assign a separate clerk to collect the 20,000 letters she would receive from her fans that year. "It was amazing. One day I was a nobody, and the next day, I was a star," she would say later.
But the Games were never just about sport. Each one comes with financial opportunities, but also the possibility of ruin for the hosts. Modern-day Games have been plagued by doping scandals and fears of bombings and other terror attacks. The 1972 Games in Munich saw an attack by Palestinian terrorists on the Israeli team, killing 11. And for the duration of the Cold War, the Olympic clash between the Soviet Union and the United States was seen as an extension of the political wargame; a barely sublimated expression of the war the two superpowers never quite got around to having. Soviet athletes were housed in a separate athletes’ village at the 1952 Games, for fear sporting rivalry would turn into violence. And the United States boycott of the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow was reciprocated four years later, when the Soviets pulled out of the 1984 Games in Los Angeles.
But everything changed after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Suddenly, some of the best athletes, coaches and training facilities belonged not to a Moscow-led government, but to other countries. State funding declined drastically, and Russia`s sports programs suffered. A decade of ignominious defeats followed, and not only in the Olympics — following Russia’s dreadful performance in the 2002 soccer World Cup against Japan, fans rioted on Manezh square, destroying property, cars and killing one policeman. But nothing compared to the shame and disgrace of the last Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, however, when the Russian team saw its worst finish ever: fifth among nations. The disqualification of not one but two women from a cross-country skiing competition — Larisa Lazutina, who had won silver, and Olga Danilova, who had won gold — for doping only deepened the shame and frustration.
Yet determined individuals ploughed on. Among the ’90s greatest stars was a monstrous wrestler named Alexander Karelin, who showed his dogged Russian spirit by repeatedly pounding his opponents into the dust, three times bringing home gold. Russian athletes continued to shine in ice hockey, and leaped to the forefront in tennis. Their success was a tribute to the patriotism of coaches and athletes and their love of sport. Although underfunded, many of the rigorous training programs developed during the Soviet era remained in place, and many trainers stayed on despite pitiful salaries and equipment shortages.
"In other countries, there isn’t the same quality of trainers, even though our trainers are the worst paid in the world," said Russia’s head diving coach, Alexei Yevantulov, before the Sydney Olympics in 2000. At the time his team didn’t have enough money to buy new springboards and had to train for two weeks in Italy before the Games because of shortages at home.
Pride, resilience, patriotism: these are qualities Russia has in spades, even when cash is short and the chips are down. Recently, however, under judo enthusiast President Putin, funding has returned to Russian sport, though not at the same level as in its heyday. In the last two years, 15 new sports complexes have been built in the Moscow region alone; other areas including Krasnodarsky Krai, Saratov, Samara and Rostov-on-Don have also benefited. A new Olympic training academy, capable of training 650 children in a wide range of sports, opened in Rostov-on-Don.
There are high hopes for this year’s Russian Olympic team. About 700 athletes will perform in 457 events, representing 72 regions of Russia. Medal hopefuls include boxers, synchronized swimmers, gymnasts, fencers, and volleyball and women’s basketball teams; the Russian Olympic Committee has optimistically forecast that as many as 150 of its athletes will bring home medals. To prevent doping scandals, a new anti-doping testing center has been gathering medical samples from all the country’s competitors. The responsibility of analyzing the samples will be given to an independent laboratory.
"I believe in our sportsmen and coaches," said Leonid Tyagachyov, head of the Russian Olympic Committee, in a recent interview. "I always pin my greatest hopes on the Russian team."
And as this year’s team enters its final preparations for competition, the bureaucrats are working hard on their own mission: gunning to host the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in Moscow. "[It is] the conviction of our government and our people that the Olympic Games in Moscow will help to unite the whole world," Mr. Tyagachyov said.
Whether it will unite the world or not, the prospect of hosting the Games has united many Russians. A poll of 1,500 people at the end of May found that 72 percent of Russians approve of the idea of hosting the 2012 Olympics in Moscow. Though detractors fear terrorist attacks, the cost of mounting the Games and the potential for corruption, more people are focused on the possible economic benefits and the prestige that come with hosting the Games, not to mention the further development of sports at home.
"This would demonstrate objectively that, in questions of sport and culture, Moscow can truly be put on the same level as such cities as Paris, London, and New York," Mr. Tyagachyov said.
Russia remains a proud nation, ready to show the world that it still matters. As athletes make final preparations for the Olympics in Athens, there is a renewed sense of pride and determination amongh the athletes, and a sense that a new era of athletic glory is emerging.
A decision on the 2012 Games will be made next year. Competition is stiff — Moscow is up against London, New York, Paris and Madrid, four of the world’s great cities. Once on top, Russia is now definitely an outsider. But then again, sometimes the underdog comes out on top. The world will most certainly be watching.