Russians are anxiously hoping the London Olympics will reinforce the country’s position as a sporting giant after a string of disappointments bruised national pride ahead of the Sochi Winter Games.
Most adult Russians grew up accustomed to Soviet athletes triumphing in sport and the Soviet national anthem ringing out worldwide every four years, as dominant USSR stars repeatedly struck Olympic Gold. These days, the music to the Russian anthem is the same as the Soviet one, after ex-KGB agent President Vladimir Putin restored the tune in 2000. But the sporting success rate is quite different.
A near-obsession in these Summer Games for Russia is holding on to its ‘podium’ place in the final medals tally behind the US and China and not letting a sporting upstart like Britain push it into a humiliating fourth.
Russia’s Olympic trends since the collapse of the Soviet Union have been far from positive. Whereas the USSR topped the medals table at the 1988 Seoul Games with 55 golds, modern Russia’s share of the glory has gradually diminished and in Beijing in 2008 it just held onto third place with 23 golds.
“When the last medals are handed out, it will be clear how the balance of power has changed in sport over the last four years,” the sports network of state television wrote in a commentary on its website. “The fight with Britain for the place on the podium is going to be no joke.”
The last years have seen thin pickings in Russian sport with the football squad failing to qualify for the 2010 World Cup, and this summer exiting the Euro 2012 in the first round. Most humiliating was the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, where Russia only picked up three golds, in abject contrast to the Red Machine’s domination of snow and ice sports in Soviet times.
Sport in Russia is hugely political and strongman Putin personally told the team in the Kremlin ahead of their departure that they were going to London to win victory for the country.
“I want to wish you that thanks to your victories the flag of the Russian Federation will be raised and the national anthem heard at the stadiums of London as much as possible,” he said.
In some major sports – notably swimming, rowing and track cycling – Russia is expected to barely figure in the medals after failing to keep up with the sophisticated programmes of other nations.
The 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi – bestowed on Russia after a campaign personally spearheaded by Putin – are a project that transcends sport for Russia, and home success will be vital for the government.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 29th, 2012.