Russia's got the post-Olympic blues before they've even started
23.05.2011 — Analysis
A thousand days before the opening of the Sochi Olympics, Russian athletes have reached a nadir. During the 2010-2011 winter season, which ended in the defeat of Vyacheslav Bykov's team at the Ice Hockey World Championship, Russians only managed to win two top awards. In their race for gold, the future Olympic hosts have been outdistanced by even... the Australians. This correspondent for "RusBusinessNews" has been figuring out who is going to rouse the Russian sports world from its coma in the next three years and how this is going to be done.
Russia is eager to take first place in the unofficial medal standings at the Sochi Olympics. Although it is not required for the host country to get a head start on the next four years by having the most gold medals, it is seen as a matter of prestige and a demonstration of the evolution of sports in that country. Just look at China's medal count going into the Beijing Olympics, for example. For Russia, the pressure is much greater since it still considers itself to be a sports superpower.
This is precisely why the whole country went berserk last year after the Vancouver games, when Russia won only three golds and found themselves in 11th place in the medals ranking. The result was a purge of personnel in almost every winter-sports federation, which then spread to include government officials. Leonid Tyagachev, who had been president of the Russian Olympic Committee for many years, lost his job, and Vitaly Mutko found himself under a barrage of criticism, although in the end he managed to retain his position.
Optimists claimed that things weren't as bad as all that, and that the Russian performance was just a fluke, an unexpected glitch. After all, similar things had happened before, at the 2006 games in Turin, for example, when the Norwegian team took home only two golds but went on to win nine, four years later in Vancouver.
Pessimists suggest that there is a bigger picture here, that Russia's athletic problems are more systematic. They claim that this is not just a situation that has cropped up in the past season or two, but an issue that has been ongoing for a number of years. They say Russian sports has rotted to the core and no cosmetic facelift is going to help. So the directors of the sports federations, unable to find a prophet in their own land, have sought coaches from the West.
Russian speed skaters are coached by the Italian Maurizio Marchetto, who engineered Ivan Skobrev's Olympic glories. The famous Canadian Patty Vutric advises the Russian curling team. She also managed to pick up three Canadian players who acquired Russian citizenship with amazing speed. The Korean Jimmy Jang took over coaching duties in one event where Russians traditionally win lots of medals, short track. His name is associated with the US skating team's past few years of success. Alpine skiers, freestyle skiers, bobsledders, lugers, and Nordic combined skiers also have foreign trainers.
But the women's biathlon team has been the most noteworthy group to import a coach - they are now led by the indefatigable opponent of doping, Wolfgang Pichler.
Aleksandr Tikhonov, the former president of the Russian Biathlon Union and a four-time Olympic champion, told "RusBusinessNews" that Pikhler was a chameleon who is now indistinguishable from a real Soviet coach. "When he was still a kid he hung around our team and chased after me at the training camp in Ruhpolding. Back then, he was told to stick close to us and learn from our experience. Pikhler's preseason preparation, with its focus on the volume and speed of work, is itself a technique from the last century. But if there are talented biathletes on the team, reminiscent of Sergei Tchepikov, Anatoly Alyabyev, or Ole Einar Bjoerndalen, they will do well no matter what. But that's assuming they're willing to work. Evgeny Ustyugov can be consistently successful if he doesn't end up wearing bronze like Maksim Chudov. I'm afraid to point to anyone in particular on the women's team, but it's clear that we don't have anyone on the level of Magdalena Neuner".
It won't just be foreign coaches prepping Russian athletes for the Sochi games, overseas consulting firms will be working with them as well. The Russian Olympic Committee signed a contract in the spring of 2011 with Allinger Consulting, Inc., whose conceptual masterminds, Cathy Priestner-Allinger and Todd Allinger, are the husband-and-wife coauthors of the Own the Podium program that helped Canada rack up its amazing medal count at its home games in Vancouver.
There is a tacit understanding that these experts will keep in regular contact with representatives of the Russian sports federations, the athletes and coaches of Russian teams, that they will familiarize themselves with their preparation plans, make suggestions and adjustments, report on the latest scientific advances, and find dieticians and experts in biomechanics for the teams. An additional Ministry of Sports is being created right under the nose of Vitaly Mutko's office, with the same Olympic functions.
But even assuming that the relevant minister, the Russian Olympic Committee, and Allinger Consulting, Inc. manage to find a common language, there just isn't enough time before the start of the Sochi games for the consulting agency's ideas to have an effect. Mr. and Mrs. Allinger began working with the Canadian Olympic Committee six years before the 2010 Olympics began, but Russia is trying to travel the same distance in half that time. And the Canadian duo and their assistants have set truly grandiose goals. They are supposed to ensure 14 (!) gold medals for the Russian team, although that exceeds the any number ever won by even the old Soviet team.
In this as-yet-unrealized plan, the burden of expectations of course fall on the sports in which Russia is traditionally a powerhouse: the biathlon, cross-country skiing, figure skating, and hockey, where Russia is supposed to win 29 out of 92 sets of medals. But Russia won only nine silver and bronze medals this past winter in the world championships of these sports.
It's still not known what price will have to be paid to achieve these results. All winter the biathletes were demanding their rights, complaining about the coaches, injuries, fans, journalists, and weather. We have yet to see what they're going to find to complain about in the new season.
The skiers have divided themselves into several camps and the atmosphere surrounding the team was vividly exposed during an incident after one of the world championship races. Aleksandr Legkov, the team's charismatic leader, had strong words for the tactics of his teammate Maksim Vylegzhanin, which he expressed angrily in front of the cameras using unprintable language. Such emotions have not reached the boiling point on the women's team, although in recent years they have transformed themselves from a force to be reckoned with to nothing but a joke.
The figure skaters provided the most excitement this winter. The 17-year-old Artur Gachinsky and the pair, Tatiana Volosozhar and Maksim Trankov (who began performing together less than a year ago), did unexpectedly well at the Moscow World Championships. But the question is whether they will be able to deliver such strong and consistent performances in the future.
And everyone loves to berate the Russian hockey players who immediately set several new anti-records at the world championships in Slovakia. Their coach, Vyacheslav Bykov, is being accused of not wanting to bring young players onto the team, of being unable to maintain order on the team entrusted to him, and a host of other deadly sins.
After the end of the winter season, but before the snow had even melted, the Ministry of Sports had made some decisions. The skiers and biathletes got new coaches, and the figure skaters and hockey players are next on the agenda. But this is no guarantee that the path chosen by the sports officials will be the one to ensure that Russia "owns the podium" in Sochi, and this uncertainty is what's making everyone so uneasy.
Medal count - 2010 Olympics
Medal count at the 2011 world championships in Olympic events
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