Once-powerful Russia far behind in gold medal race
LONDON (AP) — After a miserable first week in the gold medal stakes, traditional powerhouse Russia is showing signs of a revival — though not enough to avoid its lowest Olympic finish in 60 years.
While some of Russia's strongest events are still to come, the team is set to wind up outside the top three in golds for the first time since the Soviet Union began competing at the games in 1952.
It's a worrying sign for a country that will host the next Olympics, the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, and follows Russia's worst-ever performance at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
"Sure, we would like to have more gold medals," Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Zhukov told the RIA Novosti news agency. "But this is sports, and in many sport events we just lack a bit of luck and good fortune."
After lagging in 10th for total gold medals won in London behind even North Korea and former Soviet republic Kazakhstan, Russia started to come to life Monday, picking up three gold medals to move into a tie for sixth place with Italy with seven.
China and the United States are 1-2 in golds with 31 and 29, respectively, and host Britain third with 18.
Despite the shortage of gold, the Russians have been racking up other medals — 17 silver and 18 bronze for an overall count of 42. They have moved two ahead of Britain into third place in total medals.
Russia's recent decline has coincided with China's rise as an Olympic superpower and continued dominance by the United States.
The Russian daily Sports Express said in a front page commentary Monday that Russian sports was "frozen" between the Chinese and American systems. It blamed a shortage of state funding and lack of oversight and control over national sports federations.
"It's very far from China, where the watchful Communist Party is eyeing the selection process starting from the kindergarten stage, builds giant sports arenas and finances powerful medical research — and harshly demands results," the paper said. "We must admit that we stand even further from the American model, and the distance keeps growing. Because it would be deadly if we end state involvement in sports as they did. Sports industries that will feed themselves are simply absent in our country."
There's room for Russia to bring home plenty more in the final days of the games, which end Sunday. Russia has good medal chances in wrestling, synchronized swimming, gymnastics and boxing, among others.
"Historically, we win 80 percent of our gold medals in the last five days," Mikhail Kusnirovich, deputy head of the Russian team, said. "If we finish with 20 gold medals, it would be great."
Barring an amazing set of circumstances, Russia will not be able to catch Team GB in the gold medal race. The hosts, who already have 11 more gold that Russia, have strong contenders ahead in track cycling, boxing, equestrian, sailing and track and field.
Russia finished third in both medal counts at the past two summer Olympics and had been widely predicted to do the same in London.
Before that, the Soviet Union or Russia had always been first or second going back to the 1952 Games in Helsinki.
Monday's competition lifted Russia's mood when gymnast Aliya Mustafina took gold in the uneven bars.
"Here it is, the long-awaited gold in gymnastics! I congratulate Aliya, and all the team and the gymnastics federation from the bottom of my heart!" Mutko said, according to the ITAR-Tass agency.
Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev also sent congratulations, saying that her "great achievement has brought a great joy to our fans and proven to the world that Russia holds an honorable place among the leaders in gymnastics."
A few hours later, Alan Khugaev won a gold medal in Greco-Roman wrestling and Yuliya Zaripova captured the women's 3,000-meter steeplechase. Hopes for a fourth gold in one day evaporated when Russian superstar Yelena Isinbayeva managed only 4.70 meters (15 feet, 7 inches) in the pole vault, with the gold going to Jennifer Suhr of the United States.
Whatever happens the rest of the week, the pressure will be even greater on Russian athletes to perform in Sochi. The host nation wants no repeat of the debacle of Vancouver on its own turf.
In Canada, Russia won only 15 medals and finished 11th in the table. The disastrous results led to the ouster of four key executives in the nation's Olympic program.
"It's better we lost in Vancouver than in Sochi," Kusnirovich said. "Vancouver gave us a chance to improve and be much more successful in Sochi. Home games are very important. We need to have the mentality of winners."
Medals in Sochi will be a matter of national pride for Russia and President Vladimir Putin, who is directly involving in overseeing preparations for the games.
The Russians are now working on their own version of Canada's "Own the Podium" program, a $117-million initiative that resulted in 14 golds for the Canadians — more than any country at a Winter Games. The Canadian project doled out funds — from the federal government, corporate sponsors and elsewhere — to support medal contenders with state-of-the-art coaching, training and psychological help, as well as tips from a sports research program called Top Secret.
Russia's strategy includes turning to foreign coaches.
"We must attract foreigners whenever it's possible, and there is no reason to be ashamed of that," Zhukov said. "If our own coaches are the best, we must call them. If our coaches have moved to other countries and keep on raising champions there, then we must spend maximum efforts to get them back."
Kusnirovich is also involved in bolstering Russia's sports programs ahead of 2014. As chairman of Bosco, a company which supplies outfits for the Russian, Ukrainian and Spanish teams in London, he will be investing in Russian winter sports federations to prepare them for the games.
"I hope this will create the right atmosphere in Russia," he said. "Our athletes are not just machines that win medals. Yes, we need a winners mentality. But if somebody loses, it's not the end of life."
Associated Press Writer Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.
Follow Stephen Wilson on Twitter: http://twitter.com/stevewilsonap