February 27, 2010 in Nation/World

Russians lash out in wake of Olympic mediocrity

Megan K. Stack Los Angeles Times
 
Associated Press photo

Russia’s Alexander Ovechkin can’t hide his disappointment after a hockey loss to Canada.
(Full-size photo)

MOSCOW – Day after painful day, the failures have been piling up: The Russians couldn’t catch any gold in figure skating, fumbled the early biathlon races and, most crushing of all, was trounced at ice hockey.

And, for once, this country of stoical nationalism and deep, black humor is showing signs of rage – and a rare flash of public humility. From the penniless to the powerful, Russians lashed out against officials this week over the country’s Olympics performance with a vitriol seldom provoked, even amid pervasive graft and lawlessness.

In bitter Internet postings and smoky pubs, fans cursed the corruption that they believe has seeped into Russian athletics, accusing sports officials of growing fat and rich even as impoverished players are forced to seek better lives abroad.

They bemoaned the bygone days of Soviet athletic glory, which was underpinned by a vast complex of sports schools and training complexes that carpeted the country before the collapse of the U.S.S.R.

Most of all, they demanded quick, decisive change lest they be shamed at home when the Winter Games come to the city of Sochi in 2014.

“Our leaders are to blame. They should be kicked out,” snarled Yuri Sinyov, a 62-year-old pensioner who stayed up all night to watch Russia’s hockey team lose to Canada. “They’ve been at the trough for so long, and they haven’t done anything.”

Wednesday’s hockey loss, fans here agreed, was the coup de grace in what was already shaping into a humiliating string of failures. With just three gold medals to boast, Russian spectators were giving up on the Olympics and returning home early, local media reported.

On Friday, reports circulated that President Dmitry Medvedev would not travel to Vancouver to attend the closing ceremony. The president had said that he planned to go and that he hoped to watch the hockey finals.

About a third of the Russian players are members of the Kontinental Hockey League, their nation’s recently formed professional league that has pretentions of being a world-class rival to the North American National Hockey League.

“It’s a disaster,” said goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov following their devastating 7-3 loss to Canada, the team they were supposed to challenge for gold. “End of the world.”

In a front-page diatribe in the Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper, Russia’s famed figure skater Irina Rodnina took harsh aim at the sports bureaucrats who, she wrote, were shamelessly corrupt.

“The highest level of sports can raise the prestige of the nation, unite it. Yes, we need victories,” wrote Rodnina, who won three successive Olympic gold medals during Soviet times. “But how can we get them if the Olympic team is not in the mood?”

From her perch in Vancouver, Rodnina described her indignation at the sight of Leonid Tyagachev, president of the Russian Olympic Committee, eating with gusto in a restaurant, his appetite apparently undented by repeated loss.

“All of Russia is in shock,” she wrote. “And do you think those responsible for the results are really so worried?”

Politicians swung into action, too. Boris Gryzlov, head of the ruling United Russia party and close to the Kremlin, said that both the sports minister and the president of nation’s Olympic committee would be summoned before parliament to justify their failings.

Imperious sports officials, perhaps sensing the whiff of their own vulnerability, were quick to blame the players.

“Their slightest whim was catered to. They lacked only breakfast in bed, and they could have had that, if they had asked,” Russia’s Olympic spokesman Gennady Svets said of the hockey team. “They proved they couldn’t play against real professionals.”

Men’s hockey coach Vyacheslav Bykov was openly enraged by the first stirrings of anger against his players.

“Let’s get the guillotine or the gallows out, yeah?” he snapped to Russian reporters in Vancouver. “We have 35 people on the squad. Let’s cut them all up on Red Square.”

Beneath the blame and anger, there was a sense of true dismay. In a country that has been lavishly encouraged to think of itself as the latter-day heir to Soviet might, the losses have been hard to swallow.

The Soviet collapse was marked by the shuttering of hundreds of sports schools built to train promising athletes; the flight of the country’s strongest coaches and trainers; and the loss of sports facilities that were built in Soviet states beyond Russian borders.

Today’s Russia is an oil- and gas-rich place where, theoretically, people accept the curtailing of democratic freedoms because they are compensated with a rising standard of living and a sense of restored national pride.

But this year’s Olympics have drawn dramatic attention to the failure to translate massive oil profits into the effective reconstruction of the sports infrastructure, sports historian Oleg Milshtein said.

“It has already resulted in a huge public discussion,” he said of the Olympics. “It’s a huge stimulus to change the system, and I think it will be done.”


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