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Putin the Competitor

Can Russia Fulfill the Promises It Made to the International Sports Community? Vladimir Putin takes part in presentation of film about judo By David Nowak Special to Russia Profile 04/05/2012

Vladimir Putin’s return to the Kremlin for a third term managed to elicit groans of relief in the corridors of FIFA and the International Olympic Committee that may have been heard as far away as Moscow. Officials there have been forced to understand that little in Russia gets done without Putin’s nod, and that his reelection leaves the power vertical so crucial to the success of these projects blissfully uncompromised.

As Putin steers Russia into a position to dominate the sporting landscape of the next decade, his primary sporting goal is obvious: to deliver the two events he lobbied so spectacularly to obtain. “The first duty for the new president is to fulfill all these promises,” said Georgy Cherdantsev, one of the country’s top sports commentators and analysts. “The country’s reputation is at stake. Sochi is going well, but there are six years until the World Cup and nothing is there. He needs to make it all a reality.”

Putin spearheaded the Sochi Olympic bid by making an impassioned speech in English to International Olympics Committee (IOC) members in Guatemala in 2007, at the end of his second consecutive term as president. As prime minister, he personally lobbied FIFA officials to give Russia football’s top competition instead of its homeland, England, in 2010. Now, again as president, Putin can emboss his credentials as history’s greatest sports project manager by ending his third term having given the world two festivals of international competition where before there were sludge fields and crumbling roads.

Racing Against the Clock

With the Olympics less than two years away, the country is nearly ready. All 200-plus stadiums, slopes, jumps, runs, roads, tunnels and the essential miscellany should be complete by year-end, as 50,000 workers toil 24 hours a day at coastal and mountain venue clusters, in the biggest building project in Europe for decades costing a total of at least $ 30 billion.

The IOC is happy that Russia is on schedule despite the delay of around 70 projects revealed by Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak earlier this year. The first serious test events have gone smoothly on the whole, barring a hold-up at the ski jump facility that the Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko shrugged off as insignificant.

With the World Cup, which Russia is thankfully confining to a single, European time zone, things aren’t nearly as developed, with officials yet to agree upon the 11 cities to host the matches.

Putin, who was congratulated by FIFA President Sepp Blatter in a statement this month that emphasized Putin’s “government guarantees” and “total commitment” to the World Cup, needs to arrange for the construction or refurbishment of a dozen arenas to conform to FIFA standards, in a project that has been allocated $ 10 billion, though this number is expected to balloon. “This is a much broader project than the Olympics, which is why time is of the essence here,” Cherdantsev said of the World Cup. Only the iconic Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, which was used for the 1980 Olympics and is the chosen venue for the 2018 final, meets FIFA requirements.

Demanding Manpower

The progress already made in Sochi is settling a lot of nerves when it comes to the World Cup (indeed, FIFA recently commented that Russia is today better prepared for the 2018 World Cup than Brazil is for the 2014 edition), but there is one factor that is mostly out of Putin’s control that will go a long way in determining the success of these events. Putin needs to produce athletes to match. In the event of a Vancouver 2010-style medal flop, or the football team crashing out in the group stage, praise of fantastic organization will be of little consolation to Russians whose memory of the unstoppable Soviet sports machine is fading rapidly. “I don’t doubt for a second that we will put on these events magnificently,” said Igor Kots, the editor in chief at Russia’s oldest sports daily, Sovetsky Sport. “But our sporting chances are alarmingly low. If we were to hold the Olympics tomorrow, for example, we wouldn’t appear anywhere on the medal table,” he said. “The performances of our athletes have been distressingly bad over the last two or three years. Our alpine skiers are nowhere to be seen, and we have just put on the worst showing at the biathlon world championships in the last 15 years. As a simple Russian sports fan, this worries me,” Kots added.

A glance at Russia’s current aptitude in its traditionally strong winter sports seems to support Kots’ concern. The Russian biathlon team that went to Ruhpolding, Germany, as one of the world championship’s favorites this month came back with a meager two-bronze haul. Head Coach Valery Polkhovsky had hoped for a medal in each of the 11 disciplines with Russian representation. Polkhovsky promised a thorough post-mortem but guarded against excessive alarm, pointing to 27 World Cup podiums achieved by Russian biathletes this season. The country has fearsome heritage to live up to: when taken combined, Russia and the Soviet Union have 18 Olympic biathlon golds—the most of any nation.

On Slippery Ice

In figure skating, where Russia comes second only to the United States historically, the country’s men must try to shed their dependence on Evgeny Plushenko for success. The 2006 Turin gold medalist and runner-up in Salt Lake City in 2002 and Vancouver in 2010 is coming back to the sport after injury and disqualification, looking for gold in Sochi to end his career with a suitable flourish. But Plushenko will be 31 years old by then, putting more pressure on youngsters such as 18-year-old Artur Gachinski to take up the mantle. Gachinski leads a 17-strong Russian team at this month’s world championships in Nice, France, where they must cope without Plushenko, who is recovering from knee surgery, in attempting to better last year’s result of one silver and Gachinski’s bronze.

Success in Sochi will be expected from upcoming pairs team Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov, and teenagers Elena Olinykh and Nikita Katsalapov. The country is trembling with excitement over the potential of Adelina Sotnikova and Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, two junior champions who will be 17 when the games begin.

The Sochi games give Russia’s men the chance to end 16 years of Olympic hockey misery, their last medal coming as bronze in Salt Lake City. Even in world championships, the Russians are slipping. After winning back-to-back gold in 2008 and 2009, the team won silver in Germany in 2010 and finished fourth last year in Bratislava. “I really think this is our best chance of glory in Sochi,” said Kots.

On to Greener Pastures

Meanwhile, analysts say it’s too early to forecast Russia’s 2018 World Cup chances, but expectation will be high to reproduce the kind of form that took the country to the Euro 2008 semifinals under Guus Hiddink. Russia has performed well since crashing out of qualification for the 2010 World Cup, with Hiddink’s compatriot Dick Advocaat steering the country to the Euro 2012 finals this summer after winning a tough qualification group that included Slovakia and the Republic of Ireland.

By 2018 the team will have a very different look, as the old guard of Sergei Ignashevich, Alexander Anyukov, Yuri Zhirkov, Roman Pavlyuchenko and Andrei Arshavin—who have provided the backbone of the squad for the last decade—is replaced.

Talent such as CSKA Moscow’s Alan Dzagoev, Lokomotiv’s Roman Shishkin and Spartak Moscow winger Pavel Yakovlev can ensure the kind of smooth generational change that leads UEFA President Michel Platini to believe glory is within reach for the host nation. “Russia is capable of winning the World Cup,” Platini said in an interview earlier this year. “Russia can accomplish great success at the championships so long as the team is built around strong players.”

World Records

The Olympics and the World Cup, however, are just the brightest in a slew of sporting events to be held in Russia over the next few years, as Putin seeks to reassert Russia’s place on the world stage in as many spheres as possible.

After last year’s FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup, which Russia won, and the World Figure Skating Championships, moved from Japan after the tsunami and earthquake, the next few years will see the 2013 Universiade in Kazan, the arrival of Formula 1 motor racing in Sochi in 2014, the 2016 World Hockey Championships, and the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup.

The sporting ambitions of Putin, a confessed health freak and judo black belt, aren’t confined to Russia, but extend well beyond its borders. Putin last month signaled his intent to drive the nascent Kontinental Hockey League forward to challenge the NHL as the world’s preeminent competition. “To a certain extent our Kontinental Hockey League is still a weak competitor to the NHL, but it’s gradually gaining momentum, and I’m confident that in time it can become real, good, healthy competition for the NHL,” Putin said.

The KHL was founded in 2008 with 24 teams from the former Soviet Union, and now contains 22 ex-Soviet teams plus Lev Poprad from Slovakia. Huge salaries mean it is littered with former NHL stars, but Europe’s other powerhouse hockey leagues, such as Sweden’s Elitserien and Finland’s SM–Liiga, are reluctant to buy into the KHL project, considering it a step down from their own domestic leagues and a loss-making endeavor.

Putin must win these countries over if the KHL is to get up a head of steam as he has vowed, be it by added financial incentives—for instance by offering the huge Russian television audience as an expansion market—or by restricting competition to Europe’s elite teams to guarantee a minimum quality of hockey, analysts said. Additionally, he would be wise to push for a world playoff series between NHL and KHL champions, a matchup pitting the Stanley Cup and Gagarin Cup winners as has been mooted in hockey forums, to build brand awareness and rekindle the exciting rivalry of the 1972 Summit Series between Canada and the Soviet Union.

Lying beyond Putin’s glittering megaprojects, though, are the everyday endeavors needed for the country to produce top-class athletes and return it to the peak of achievement that the Soviets were accustomed to. In a healthy economy, money poured in at the top trickles down to the grass roots to allow success to breed success, and to facilitate the flow of talent in the opposite direction. Having opened these channels by persuading global sportsmasters to stage their shows in Russia, Putin’s challenge is to rid them of bureaucratic clots that threaten to leave the amateur end hopelessly ostracized from the elite. It may be one of Putin’s greatest failings if banal corruption prevents the country from truly realizing the legacy opportunities offered by the Olympics and World Cup, if his business associates fill their pockets at the expense of sporting opportunities where they wouldn’t have come before.

The greatest opportunity brought by the influx of sports to Russia, however, may be saved for Putin himself. “What he’s doing by staging all these events is showing to the world’s leaders that he is worthy of being among them,” said Nikolay Petrov of the Carnegie Moscow Center. “They demonstrate what a success the country can be, and in this [Putin] is showing that Russia is rising from its knees to become a superpower once again.”

More crucially, perhaps, the Football World Cup reveals Putin’s plans to stick around as president beyond 2018, when his current term ends. It begins in the summer of that year, falling after a winter or spring presidential election. “Can you imagine a World Cup without president Putin cutting the ribbon?” Petrov asked.

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