It has been two weeks of unprecedented soul-searching for Russian sport, after a dismal performance at the Winter Olympics threatened to overshadow the glitzy and expensive roadshow that the country took to Vancouver to promote the next winter games.
The 2014 games, to be held in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi, are a pet project of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and are being used by the government as a lightning rod for national pride. The “Russian House” at Vancouver put on lavish parties and promotions boasting about just how special the 2014 games will be. But the unusually poor Russian performance this time round, especially coming just after the government ploughed millions of roubles into improving conditions for winter sportsmen, has plunged the country into a rare episode of self-doubt.
It started with Evgeny Plushenko, the figure skater who took gold in 2006 and was widely expected to repeat the feat in Vancouver but was beaten to the top spot by America’s Evan Lysacek. Some fairly unsporting rancour ensued, including Plushenko attempting to stand on the first place podium for the medals ceremony, and his personal website identifying the silver medal as “platinum”.
The string of disasters continued through other sports and culminated with a dismal ice hockey defeat to hosts Canada, where Russia lost 7-3 without putting up much of a fight, to be sent home at the quarter-final stage. And as failure piled upon failure, the tone of the Russian media changed. Suddenly the overall poor performance could not be attributed to bad luck, to crooked judges, or to some overarching anti-Russian conspiracy, and the press began to blame the athletes. A period of national soul-searching has commenced, akin to the nationwide self-flagellation that accompanies each premature World Cup exit by the English football team.
The media disgust is mirrored by top political figures. President Dmitry Medvedev axed plans to travel to Vancouver for the closing ceremony, and other officials called for organisational changes to ensure a better showing next time round. “Because of disgraceful performance of our team I’m afraid to approach TV set,” wrote Russia’s ambassador to Nato, Dmitry Rogozin, on his Twitter feed. “How on earth could we have blown it so disastrously in hockey?” Russia has to “fix the situation and create all conditions for a worthy performance at the Sochi Olympics in 2014”, said Putin on Friday.
“The reasons at the core of the string of failures of the Russian Olympic team are to a large extent psychological,” says Maxim Titorenko, a Russian psychoanalyst and anthropologist. “The government chose to encourage sportsmen, giving them huge monthly salaries and bonuses as advance payments for their expected victories in Vancouver 2010 and Sochi 2014. By receiving advance rewards for something they were expected to do in future, the sportsmen lost all psychological incentive for further achievements.”
Many have agreed with this picture of spoiled, overpaid athletes. The legendary Russian swimmer Alexander Popov, who won four Olympic gold medals, and is now a member of the IOC, told Sovetsky Sport newspaper that his generation of athletes had “a different mentality” to the current crop. “For us, medals were the most important thing,” he said. “Money comes and goes, but medals stay forever. If you want to earn money, you should go into business.”