Russia's Paltry Medal Take Will Only Get Worse

Russia's performance at the Vancouver Olympics was more than just a sporting disaster. Seen from the perspective of sports-mad Russia—where ice hockey is viewed as war by other means and figure skating is considered a national cultural treasure on a par with Tolstoy and Dostoevsky—it was a national disaster too. All the more so because Russia itself takes the Winter Olympic torch this Sunday to deliver it to Sochi, host of the 2014 games.

Just how deeply the Kremlin cares about winter sports can be gauged by President Dmitry Medvedev's anger over Russia's miserable haul of just three golds and 12 other medals. Medvedev may be a reformer, but first and foremost he's a bureaucrat—and he therefore blamed fellow bureaucrats for the Russian team's failure. "I think that the individuals responsible, or several of them, who answer for these preparations, should take the courageous decision to hand in their notice. If we don't see such decisiveness, we will help them," he said. Many disasters have befallen Russia over the last decade—from a submarine sinking to a mass hostage-taking in downtown Moscow—but rarely has the president ordered the sweeping ouster of a class of top officials. But while it looks and sounds like accountability, it's not going to help. The real problem isn't just about who's in control—and if Moscow doesn't figure that out, the 2014 home-turf games are going to end with much the same hand-wringing as the 2010 games.

One crucial problem is that top coaches leave Russia all the time to train teams elsewhere. "We do not have enough time to bring up new stars after the Soviet sports establishment fell apart," says Shamil Tarpischev, a member of the International Olympic Committee and a former personal tennis coach to Boris Yeltsin. Open borders and the dissolution of the state athletic infrastructure—which, once upon a time, cultivated a victory-or-gulag ethos among Russian athletes—bred a generation of mercenary trainers. "There are no healthy ideas of how to build a new [establishment in its place]. All our best winter sports coaches have left to train foreign teams…Both the pay and the level of respect are incomparably higher [abroad]. The ones who stayed in Russia work for TV shows teaching movie stars to dance on ice."

Exhibit A is Russian-born ice-dance coach Marina Zoueva, whose pupils brought home the gold medal (for Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir) and the silver medal (for Americans Meryl Davis and Charlie White) in Vancouver. Zoueva, who left Russia in 1991, is just one of many former Soviet stars working in the West. Former Soviet ice-dance stars Natalia Linichuk and Gennadi Karpanosov, for instance, coached U.S. Olympic silver medalists Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto. Russians "give us everything they have, their heart, their soul," Agosto told reporters at Vancouver. "Without them we wouldn't be where we are today."

The loss is definitely felt back home. "I think we need to bring coaches back to Russia," Russian bronze medalist Maxim Shabalin lamented after he and his ice-dance partner Oksana Domnina were beaten for the two top prizes. And players are now beginning to follow their coaches abroad, too: many of Russia's best sports stars leave the country and become citizens of other states. Tatiana Borudulina, one of the best Russian short-track speed skaters, became an Australian citizen last year. Anastasia Kuzmina, a Russian biathlon competitor, became a Slovakian citizen. Kuzmina won a gold medal in the 7.5km–ice sprint at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. And Nastia Liukin, the American gold-medal gymnast from the 2008 Games, was born in Russia but emigrated to Texas—where her parents (a gold medalist and a world-champion gymnast) moved to coach.

But instead of spending money to keep native talent home, the $47 million spent by the state in the last two years on preparations and training for the 2010 games was badly misallocated, says Sergei Markov, a member of Russia's Parliament. "Instead of investing in ice-skating rinks and ski slopes, the money was set aside for huge prize bonuses for athletes if they won medals—far more prize money than American athletes get. Yet at the same time, coaches have miserable pay, so these people escape abroad in search for better treatment. The Vancouver failure was the beginning of the end of the glory of Russian sport."

Russian sports' talent drain seems all the stranger in light of the billions being invested in Sochi infrastructure—mostly by oligarchs demonstrating their loyalty to the Kremlin. Earlier this month, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said that private investment in the Sochi games (which includes some state-owned companies) had topped $16.5 billion, mostly on constructing world-class facilities from scratch.

"The money isn't everything," says Tarpischev, "but we wish bureaucrats would stop making money off sport and begin to care about it. Failure in Sochi seems quite possible. And, since sport reflects the nation, that would mean a failure of patriotism and the failure of the Kremlin's ideology." If so, Moscow will once again have been the author of its own demise.