Medal slump panics Russians

By JIM KERNAGHAN, Special to QMI Agency

Sergei looked down at Czechoslovakia’s Olympic soccer team receiving gold medals in Moscow’s Lenin Stadium and was almost tearful.

“I would trade every gold medal we have won in this Olympics for that one,” the young press aide murmured that evening 30 years ago.

Today, Sergei might trade even the chance of a hockey gold medal for medals of any colour as Russia’s disastrous Winter Olympic Games continues.

The Big Red Machine is mostly red-faced these days as a result of setbacks across the board. The former powerhouse is in disarray.

The hockey team lost to Slovakia in a shootout, superstar figure skater Evgeni Plushenko was bumped to a silver medal by an American and in the most crushing loss of all, the perennially unbeatable pairs figure skaters (46 years of Olympic victories) fell.

Going into Saturday night’s competitions, the Russians had just five medals, two gold, two silver and a bronze. They used to reach that in a couple of days.

There is growing rage on the home front with even Prime Minister Vladimir Putin weighing in. If medals were awarded for finger-pointing, the Russians would be undisputed leaders in Vancouver.

It began before the competition even started when Australian aboriginal groups accused a Russian ice dance pair of mocking aborigines.

Russian Figure Skating Federation president Valenin Piseev reached back to the old Soviet empire days for this one: The Russian skaters were the target of an international plot forcing them to change their performance.

“I think this is a well-executed strategy directed against our athletes,” he told Russian television with old Cold War paranoia.

The mood of desperation continued. The Russian in the biathlon sprint blamed poor weather for his 30th-place finish. The goalie on the Russian women’s team said the high humidity at the rink was partly to blame for the team’s failures.

Plushenko and many other Russians pretty well accused the judges of the men’s singles skate with barefaced bias in awarding Evan Lysacek enough points to take the gold.

The panic goes right to the top. Putin sent a message to Plushenko that suggested he was robbed of the gold medal and will come home a hero.

“Your silver is worth gold,” Putin told Plushenko with obvious meaning.

Others cannot expect a welcome home and one can only be thankful the ruthlessness of the old Soviet regime is gone, or their return next week could be frightening. As it is, there are calls for the firing of the sports minister and the head of the Russian Olympic Committee.

The Russian decline, of course, can be tracked to the end of the old Soviet system. No sports regime can bear the loss of so many top athletes to the breakaway republics, particularly at a time when so many coaches and athletes from across the empire were heading for professional teams in the West.

In Calgary in 1988, the Soviets led the medal sweeps with East Germany following. In ‘92, a year after the breakup, the new Russian team was second. From there, it has been a slide to fifth place, two places behind Canada at the 2006 Games in Turin.

The lacklustre performances in these Olympics could hardly come at a worse time. The Russians will be staging the 2014 Winter Games and expected a large infusion of money would help restore some of the past glory as they get set to be hosts.

Interestingly, just as the old Soviet system began creaking, the Germans were gaining strength. The melding of East and West Germany created a new winter powerhouse that has been atop the leader board in medals the past three Olympics.

If you think Canada’s men’s hockey team is under enormous pressure to perform, just imagine what it’s like for the Russian Olympians halfway through the Games.

“Anything under fourth place for our team will certainly be a failure, including for those who oversee athletes in our country,” Russian Parliament speaker Boris Gryzlov said ominously.

Heads will roll.

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