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Scandal Smears Putin's Superpowered Vision For Russian Sport

  • Pete Baumgartner

Russian gold medalist Aleksandr Legkov celebrates as he receives his medal for the men's cross-country 50-kilometer mass start race during the closing ceremony for the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics in February 2014.

Russian gold medalist Aleksandr Legkov celebrates as he receives his medal for the men's cross-country 50-kilometer mass start race during the closing ceremony for the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics in February 2014.

When skier Aleksandr Legkov lunged across the finish line to lead a trio of Russians onto the medals stand on the last day of the Sochi Olympics, he ensured Russia of its greatest sporting achievement since the glory days of the Soviet era.

The gold-silver-bronze sweep by Russia in that 50-kilometer cross-country race -- one of the most difficult endurance tests in all of sports -- guaranteed Russia victory over the archrival Americans for the most overall medals and bettered Norway for the most golds at the 2014 Winter Olympic Games.

It was a pinnacle of success for Russian athletes not seen since the Soviet sports juggernaut dominated the Winter Olympics from 1956 until 1988, the last games before the U.S.S.R. crumbled into 15 separate countries.

It was also a major achievement for President Vladimir Putin -- who early in his political career realized the importance of using success in sport as a symbol of national strength, and had personally overseen the revival of Russia's ailing sports system.

"Success in sport means everything to Putin," notes Slava Malamud, a U.S.-based Russian sportswriter and commentator. "He has used the Olympics to try to increase the prestige and pride of the country."

Fall From Grace

When Putin returned to his native city of St. Petersburg in the early 1990s, after years serving abroad as a KGB intelligence officer, he could see from his new position in the city administration that the Soviet sports machine had broken down.

Within months, it would essentially be left for dead by the dissolution of the Soviet Union, whose demise put an end to the massive funding once enjoyed by Olympic programs. "There were huge changes after the end of the Soviet Union," recalls former champion Soviet figure skater and pair-skating coach Tamara Moskvina.

Ice rinks that had once teemed with state-supported skaters soon sat empty, aside from the few skaters who were fortunate enough to have wealthy parents or a private sponsor.

The same situation played out in many other sports on fields and in arenas around Russia as government money vanished. Sports schools and institutes were shuttered, and hundreds of Russia's best coaches fled to Western countries for better facilities and larger paychecks.

When Vladimir Putin returned to St. Petersburg in the early 1990s, he saw firsthand the level to which Russian sports had sunk.

When Vladimir Putin returned to St. Petersburg in the early 1990s, he saw firsthand the level to which Russian sports had sunk.

Moskvina -- a champion skater in the 1960s -- stayed in the newly minted Russia for several years before taking her coaching skills to the United States, churning out Olympic and world champions in both countries. "It was a difficult time, but we had to adapt," she recalled in a recent telephone interview.

Putin was still working in St. Petersburg in 1994 when the Goodwill Games -- an effort by American mogul Ted Turner to foster goodwill through sport following the boycotts that plagued the 1980 and 1984 Summer Olympics -- were hosted by Russia's second city.

As head of external relations for the office of St. Petersburg's mayor, Putin was active in preparing and organizing what would be freshly independent Russia's first major international sporting event.

The games, organized on a shoestring budget with many events held at run-down facilities, were an embarrassment, however. One U.S. television report in 1994 focused on the problems at the legendary Yubileyny Sports Palace, where the ice kept melting because of faulty equipment. There was further embarrassment when green algae invaded a swimming pool before a race was to be held.

It was a humiliating scene, one that exposed the dire state of the country's sports infrastructure to the world and likely left a lasting impression on many Russian politicians, including Putin, who was only five years away from taking on a leading role in the Kremlin.

Sport For Promotion

Upon becoming prime minister in August 1999, Putin -- an avid sportsman and accomplished judoka himself -- went about meticulously restoring the country's embattled sports programs.

"Putin believes a large country like Russia should be successful in sports on an international level and he went to great efforts to build up Russian sports over the years," explains sportswriter Malamud, who covered sports in Russia for Sport Ekspress and other Russian publications.

Fortunately for Putin and the country's athletes, the worst of Russia's horrendous years of economic woes were over, and an economic upturn reopened the door to sports funding.

Putin wasted little time reinvesting in the country's various amateur sports programs, building new facilities around the country, and boosting the funding of various sports federations.

He also focused on restoring the once-vaunted reputation of Russian ice hockey. Hockey success during the Soviet era was deeply connected with national pride, something Putin knew Russia should capitalize on.

New Russian hockey officials appointed by the president led to the establishment of the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) in 2008, an effort to compete with the world's top league, the North American-based National Hockey League (NHL).

Oligarchs were enlisted as owners of KHL teams to shepherd the new league and bankroll the inflated salaries needed to compete with the NHL. "Hockey is and always was an arm of Russian foreign policy and propaganda," Malamud says.

Vladimir Putin knows how important ice hockey is to Russians.

Vladimir Putin knows how important ice hockey is to Russians.

At the same time, Putin invested a lot in state resources and personal time to bring major international events to Russia. He secured the Winter Olympics for Sochi, the 2013 Summer Universiade for the Russian republic of Tatarstan, and the World Aquatics Championships held in Kazan in 2015.

Putin also landed a deal for seven prestigious Formula 1 auto races to be held in Sochi starting in 2014. And then there was the crown jewel -- a successful bid to host soccer's 2018 World Cup.

The Unravelling

Fast-forward two years from the glory of the Sochi Games, however, and the Russian sports world has taken a precipitous fall.

Reports of widespread doping by Russian athletes suggests their pinnacle of success -- the 2014 Winter Olympics -- was built on fraud. As many as 15 medals -- including the storied gold won by cross-country skier Legkov -- are alleged to have been won with the help of doping.

The ensuing maelstrom around the Russian Olympic team included a damning series of investigative reports and documentaries by international anti-doping organizations, investigative journalists, whistle-blowers, and former Russian anti-doping employees.

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) uncovered drug use by medal-winning Russian athletes not only at Sochi, but at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing as well. Russian doping, WADA concluded, was "state-dictated" and supported, and ran from at least 2011 to 2015.

Heading into the 2016 Summer Olympics, Russian sport is in disarray. Aside from one long jumper, Russia's prominent track-and-field team has been banned from competing in Rio. Overall, nearly one-third of the entire Russian Olympic team had been prohibited from participating just days before the games were set to begin on August 5 -- the result of a massive doping ban that is unprecedented in Olympic history.

The scandal is all-encompassing -- placing scrutiny on Russian amateur and professional athletes alike, sparking allegations regarding the Kremlin's role in manufacturing sporting victories, and prompting questions about Russia's right to host major sporting competitions.

As the Olympics approach, a two-year investigation by world soccer's governing body, FIFA, into the awarding of the 2018 World Cup to Russia and the 2022 tournament to Qatar is suspected of having uncovered massive corruption and the buying of FIFA members' votes in order to secure the hosting rights.

On The Defensive

The developments have put sporting Russia on the defensive.

Skier Legkov, speaking shortly after the allegations were made against him in The New York Times in May, described the claims made by a whistle-blower as "totally absurd" during a Moscow news conference.

In a bizarre show of defiance at the Olympic snub, Russian officials held an "all-Russian" track meet for the disgraced athletes in Moscow on July 28 -- the same day the country's rump Olympic team flew to Brazil.

And far from admitting there is a doping problem in Russia, Putin told the country's Olympic team on July 27 that there had been a "deliberate campaign that targeted our athletes" that was "incompatible with sport and, in general, with justice and elementary rules of law."

"[Putin] will never admit fault on Russia's part for this [doping] problem," Malamud says. "This whole ordeal just shows the extreme measures he will take for success in the Olympics and to boost national pride."

Big Investments, Small Returns

Russia is reported to have spent some $50 billion on the Sochi Olympics, is expected to spend around $20 billion to stage the World Cup, and the Russian Grand Prix is estimated to cost tens of millions of dollars to host every year.

The optics from hosting such events can be good domestically and the international attention cast on Russia is something the Putin government craves. The image of Sochi success, for example, was feted loudly by Russia's political elite and ignited a patriotic fervor that helped sell Moscow's invasion and annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula just a few weeks later.

Yet the effort to boost image through sport appears to have come at too high a price, particularly as that image is dragged through the mud, and with the investment failing to pay off on the field.

Led by the Russian national team's embarrassing loss to Wales and group-stage exit at soccer's 2016 European championships this summer, the achievements by Russian athletes have been paltry despite the government's largesse toward sports under Putin.

Even the Russian ice-hockey team, consistently considered among the best in the world, has only won four world championships since Putin came to power in 1999.

And with so many Russian star athletes and medal contenders -- including tennis player Maria Sharapova, pole-vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva, and swimmer Yulia Efimova -- not going to Rio, the remnants of Russia's Olympic team are not expected to fare well in the all-important medals standings, where the proof of being a sports powerhouse can be quantified.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russian athletes have finished first (in Barcelona 1992), second (Atlanta 1996 and Sydney 2000), third (Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008), and fourth (London 2012) in the Olympics medals table -- a slow but steady decline at the past six Summer Games.

A similar but even more dramatic decline took place at the Winter Olympics between 1992 and 2010, punctuated by an 11th place finish in the medal standings in 2010 in Vancouver, where for the first time in history a Russian didn't win a single medal in figure skating.

That downward trend was, of course, reversed with the now reported doped-up results from Sochi, where Russia officially finished first. But pending results of retests of the urine samples from more than a dozen Russian medalists are likely to revise the overall victory of the Russian Olympic team in Sochi and turn it instead into a failure.

The important question is whether a poor showing in the medal standings in Rio -- a virtual guarantee with so many of Russia's Olympians not competing -- will lead Russians to alter their strategy for achieving greatness in sports.

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