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After Lackluster Olympics, Russia Reckons With End Of An Era

Aleksandr Ovechkin looks on from the bench during the Russian ice hockey team's quarterfinal loss to Canada.
(RFE/RL) -- They no longer rule figure skating. Their vaunted hockey team went down in inglorious defeat. And when all was said and done, Russia's once-formidable Olympic team came home from the Vancouver Games with just three gold medals.

This year's Olympics have plunged the Russian sports world into a deep funk just four years before the country is slated to host the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi.

In televised comments today, President Dmitry Medvedev said Russia "must drastically change the way our athletes are trained" and that new people must be brought in to do that job.

"Those responsible for the preparations for the Olympics should bear responsibility now as well. This is obvious," Medvedev said. "I think that those who are responsible, or at least some of them who were responsible for this preparation, should make the courageous decision and tender their resignations. If they don't show such resolve, we will help them."

Painful Loss

Medvedev did not mention any officials by name. But throughout the games in Vancouver, there were repeated calls for Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko and Russian Olympic Committee Chairman Leonid Tyagachev to step down if the team's performance did not improve.

It did not. The Russian team won just 15 medals overall, putting them in sixth place in the medal standings. Pundits are calling the performance the worst in the country's Olympic history.

Russia -- and the Soviet Union -- has long been accustomed to occupying one of the top spots on the medals table. In the nine Winter Olympics between 1956 and 1988, the Soviet Union finished with the most medals seven times and came in second only twice.

And in the post-Soviet period, Russia had never finished lower than fifth in the medal standings.

Moscow-based psychologist Olga Makhovskaya says that illustrious history makes this year's humiliation particularly difficult for Russians to swallow.

"We were always a leader in winter sports, but this is a tradition that is collapsing before our eyes," she says. "It's painful to lose the identity of a winner. We always knew that no matter how difficult things were, we can always focus on the areas where we had no equals. Now we see that this is not true anymore. Many Russians are experiencing it as a personal and childish insult."

No More Soviet Nostalgia

Analysts say that in previous games, Russia was able to capitalize on the prowess of athletes who were trained in the old Soviet sports system, which had a reputation as a factory that consistently churned out world champions.

Much of the current Russian team, in contrast, was trained and came of age in the turbulent 1990s, in the chaotic decade following the Soviet break-up.

In his remarks, Medvedev criticized sports officials for leaning too heavily on memories of the old glory days and doing little to improve the country's current sports apparatus.

"We capitalized on the Soviet opportunities for too long. At a certain point they came to an end. We have lost the previous Soviet [sports] school, and we don't need to idealize it. It simply doesn't exist anymore," Medvedev said. "And yet we haven't created a school of our own, despite the fact that the amount of money invested in sports -- and this is an obvious fact -- is unprecedented."

Russia entered the Vancouver Games with high hopes, with some pundits predicting the country would win as many as 30 medals. Amid much fanfare, Patriarch Kirill blessed the team at Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's government announced large cash awards for medal winners.

But Russia floundered in sports it traditionally dominates, like ice dancing and pairs figure skating. It underperformed in traditionally strong events like the biathlon and speed skating; and was eliminated in men's ice hockey in the quarterfinals, suffering a humiliating 7-3 loss to eventual gold-medal winner Canada.

Superstar figure skater Yevgeny Plushenko was supposed to be as good as gold, but had to settle for a silver medal after losing to American Evan Lysacek -- the first American gold-medal winner in men's figure skating since 1988.

Things got so bad that when Nikita Kriukov edged out fellow Russian Aleksandr Panzhinsky for first place in cross country skiing in a virtual photo finish, Olympic Committee Chairman Tyagachev said -- only half-jokingly -- that both men should be awarded gold medals.

The day after the men's ice hockey team was eliminated, the regional legislature in Tomsk Oblast in Siberia mourned the loss with a moment of silence.

Most countries, of course, take the performance of their Olympic teams seriously and are deeply disappointed when they lose. But analysts say the tendency is severely amplified in Russia because of how the old Soviet Union trumpeted its athletic dominance as evidence of its social and political superiority.

"We have a childish or adolescent psychology regarding athletes," Makhovskaya says. "They are our idols and we identify their strengths with ourselves. We think that we can be like them."

RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report

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