The New Yorker cover cartoon shows Vladimir Putin in a figure skating costume with a plunging neckline, leaping gracefully while a row of cloned judges examines his form. If only the Russian president also could shred a halfpipe, negotiate a slalom course, or play goalie, the Motherland might have a fighting chance to top the Olympic medal table, as it did in the old Soviet days.
Unless Russia, which is spending more than $51 billion on the Winter Games that begin Friday in Sochi, puts up another trillion to buy Germany, the country that is synonymous with ice and snow likely will finish fifth in the standings behind the US, Norway, Canada, and Germany.
Even that would be an upgrade from its sixth-place effort four years ago in Vancouver, the worst since the Russians made their debut in 1956.
“Because of disgraceful performance of our team, I’m afraid to approach TV set,” NATO ambassador Dmitry Rogozin tweeted as his countrymen were winning only three gold medals, their fewest ever.
Their 2010 showing, which provoked the resignation of Olympic committee chief Leonid Tyagachev, was a shameful stumble for a country that had led the winter standings all but twice until the USSR came apart in 1991. Yet Russia had been slip-sliding ever since it was left on its own after the other 14 former Soviet republics brought their own teams to Olympus, dropping from first to second to third to sixth in 2002.
The men’s hockey team, which had ruled the Winter Games for decades (with two star-spangled exceptions), hasn’t won the gold medal since 1992 (as the Unified Team) and has missed the podium twice in a row, taking a 7-3 hammering from the Canadians in the 2010 quarterfinals. The speedskaters, who owned the oval during the ’60s, have won one gold medal since 1994 and aren’t expected to win any in Sochi. And the ice dancers, who won seven times between 1976 and 2006, can’t keep up with the North Americans.
This time the hosts’ medals will come from fewer than half of the 15 disciplines and only a handful figure to be gold. Except for cross-country skiing, short-track speedskating, and figure skating, the Russians have minimal prospects, particularly in the X Games sports, where their American rivals will clean up.
In the disciplines added to the Olympic program since 1988 — freestyle skiing, snowboarding, skeleton, short-track, curling, and women’s ice hockey and bobsled — Russia has won only seven medals, half as many as the US has collected in freestyle alone.
Even if the Soviet Union hadn’t broken up, the soaring number of medal events — from 46 in 1988 to 98 this year — would have diluted its count. But the USSR’s demise not only took away athletes such as Ukrainian figure skaters and Latvian sledders but also ended the socialist support system that had been in place since the Soviets first turned up at Cortina d’Ampezzo and blew everyone else away.
“Backward infrastructure, the loss of the national coaching school, and systematic problems in training,” sports minister Vitaly Mutko mused after 2010.
Traditionally, host countries pour money into their sports going into the preceding Games to jack up the medal count and to develop athletes who’ll make the podium four years later.
The Russians did exactly that, spending $186 million on their athletes leading up to 2010, five times what they had in Turin in 2006. The per-medal cost: $12.4 million.
Where did all the money go? Among other things, government auditors found that Mutko’s $32,400 hotel bill included $4,500 for 97 breakfasts across 20 days.
After the Vancouver debacle, Alexander Zhukov, who took over as Olympic committee chief, declared that Russia had to win the overall medal count in Sochi, and the government has been spending lavishly in a frantic attempt to get its athletes on the podium.
“They had 35 or something people on their team staff, with six or seven massage therapists,” US bobsled pilot Steve Holcomb said about the Russian contingent for last season’s World Cup circuit. “It was unbelievable how many people they had.”
The late push has paid some dividends. Importing Victor An from South Korea could mean four short-track medals, including a gold in the 500 meters. And the women’s hockey team won its first medal at last year’s World Championships.
“Hosting the Olympics was a huge push for their federation to put more money into them,” said US hockey player Julie Chu. “Alexei Yashin is working with their team.”
The government also is offering a czar’s ransom to medalists, with $122,000 for gold, $76,000 for silver, and $46,000 for bronze.
Yet a river of rubles can’t make up for decades of letting medal-rich sports dwindle, of ignoring newer ones, or of not bothering to develop others like Alpine skiing and curling, where the Russians never have had much success.
Russia, which won 20 biathlon medals since competing on its own, is favored for only a couple this time after star Irina Starykh was busted for doping last month. Its long-track speedskaters may win three medals, but none will be gold. Its bobsledders still have only an outside chance at the podium, as do its skeletors. Its best luger, Albert Demchenko, is competing in his seventh Games at 42.
And the men’s hockey team, once the invincible Big Red Machine, is coming off a sixth-place finish at last year’s World Championships.
Time was when the Motherland could count on two guaranteed golds — in hockey and men’s figure skating, where they won four straight times with Alexei Urmanov, Ilya Kulik, Alexei Yagudin, and Evgeni Plushenko. This time, because of poor showings at the last two World Championships, Russia has only one men’s entrant.
Since Maxim Kovtun, their teenaged national champion, skated poorly at the European Championships, the federation is sending Plushenko, the 31-year-old former champion who’ll be competing in his fourth Games with a cranky back and wobbly knees.
Even at that, he’s the country’s best shot in the event. Unless, of course, Putin dons sequins and puts a lineup of his clones behind the judging table.