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What, no gold? Ivan Skobrev won a silver medal in speed skating for Russia in Vancouver.
What, no gold? Ivan Skobrev won a silver medal in speed skating for Russia in Vancouver.
The weather. The judges. The lack of financial support. A team that was brought up in the turbulent '90s. Mismanagement among members of the Russian Olympic Committee. Even Patriarch Kirill was blamed, a reference to the traditional anointing of the Olympic athletes. (Russian satirist Viktor Shenderovic scoffed that either there is no God, Russia has spoiled her chances with God, or Kirill does not get on that well with God after all.)

But McDonald’s? Now, that’s new.

On March 3, a handful of activists from Zdravmol, a youth organization and a joint project of the Federal Agency for Youth Policy and the obstreperous youth movement Nashi, gathered in front of a Moscow McDonald’s and chanted: “Thank you, McDonald’s, for our 11th ranking.” They were venting their anger at one of Russia’s poorest medal tallies ever at a Winter Olympics – only three golds at the Vancouver games.

Zdravmol was founded in December 2009 with the aim of raising awareness of health matters among young people. Flash mobs are among its favorite tactics.

This time, they were not frightening smokers on the street but reenacting the Winter Games dressed as obese Olympians, within a stone’s throw of the Olympic sports complex. The site was aptly chosen, although they had to postpone their picketing and revamp their posters as Russia slid ever further down the medals table.

Ironically, McDonald’s arrived in Russia in the first place after a chance meeting between a senior chairman of McDonald’s Canada and a Soviet Olympic delegation at the Montreal Games in 1976. The opening of the first restaurant in Russia -- at Pushkin Square on January 31, 1990 -- is still unrivaled in terms of queue lengths. McDonald’s has fared exceptionally well in Russia ever since.

Obesity is not uncommon in Russia, and looking for external enemies is a common Russian motif, too.

So why then did President Dmitry Medvedev ask those officials in charge of preparing Russia’s athletes to step down? Leonid Tyagachov, head of Russia’s Olympic Committee, did so on March 3. Sports, Tourism, and Youth Policy Minister Vitaly Mutko (who incidentally oversees the Zdravmol movement) did not.

The editor in chief of “Nezavisimaya Gazeta,” Konstantin Remchukov, blames Russia’s poor showing in Vancouver on the “low intellectual and organizational level of sports management,” while Anton Sikharulidze, a gold medal-winning figure skater in 2002 and chairman of the State Duma’s Committee on Physical Culture and Sports, harshly criticized leading officials, too.

Russian oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov, president of the national Biathlon Union and habitué of the French ski resort of Courchevel, has published a strategy paper on his blog, according to which Russia could win up to 12 gold medals and 40 to 50 medals overall in Sochi in 2014, outperforming even the Soviet Union’s own premium showing in Innsbruck in 1976 (27 medals in total) and quadrupling the gold medals and more than tripling Russia’s overall medal yield in Vancouver.

Good luck! After all, there are still four years to go until Sochi, and the Canadian team somehow managed to double its gold medal haul (14) compared with its performance in Turin in 2006.

-- Fabian Burkhardt

About This Blog

Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at

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