Lessons from Russia's Low Medal Count

Back in 2006, Yevgeny Plushenko, the Russian figure skater, won Olympic gold in Turin and was a hero. But in Vancouver he managed only a silver. And that was seen as failure by many of his fans back home. So frustrated are they, and so unwilling to accept the verdict of the judges, that they have started collecting donations of gold in order to fashion their own "people's medal" for their favorite.

Plushenko's hopes of winning a second Olympic gold were dashed at the Vancouver Winter Olympics when he lost to Evan Lysacek of the United States. And Russia's sports officials refused to back Plushenko's appeal against what he branded "unfair judging." But his supporters in St. Petersburg were quick to offer their own solution – a medal made of real gold to compensate for the one he failed to win by his own efforts in Canada. And so far these fans have gathered 32 grams of gold.  

Plushenko's second place was the last straw for Russian sports enthusiasts, in a tale of sky-high expectations matched by rock-bottom performance. Having expected up to 20 gold medals and a place near the top of the medals table, Russia achieved only a paltry three golds.

Dmitry Ilkovsky, chairman of St. Petersburg's Petrovsky municipal district and one of the leaders of the campaign to award Plushenko a people's medal, is proud that the Russian version will contain more gold than its Olympic equivalent.

"The 'people's medal' will weigh 516 grams – exactly the same as a real Olympic medal, but the proportion of gold in it will be much higher," Ilkovsky said. "The Olympic gold medal contains 510 grams of silver and only six grams of actual gold, whereas ours will have a substantial amount of gold in it, or it might even end up being made entirely of gold."

Ilkovsky said there is no shortage of fans willing to part with their gold rings, earrings, and chains. "I'm getting phone calls all the time," he said, adding that he expects hundreds of people to take part in the initiative.

The plan is for the people's medal to be awarded to Plushenko on 4 April. His coach, Alexei Mishin, says the sportsman will be happy to receive the prize.

Many ordinary sports fans find the whole scheme absurd, believing Plushenko and his fans are acting like spoiled kids. Plushenko has announced that he wants to compete in the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi.

As the four-year countdown to Sochi begins, it is becoming obvious that this whole affair represents an attitude or mentality problem, which could be a big handicap for Russia's sporting future.

While Plushenko has been playing the prima donna, the country's senior sports bosses have also been acting like drama queens. President Dmitry Medvedev, disgusted with Russia's performance in Vancouver, challenged the officials responsible for training the Olympic squad to "make a courageous decision and resign."

"If any of you have troubles making such a decision, we will help you," Medvedev threatened. But more than two weeks later, Leonid Tyagachev, head of Russia's Olympic Committee, is the only official to have followed Medvedev's advice.

In contrast, Russia's sports minister, Vitaly Mutko, an ally of prime minister Vladimir Putin since their days in St. Petersburg, sounded calm and resolute when he returned from what has been described as Russia's most disappointing Olympic Games ever. He almost managed a smile for the cameras.

"Of course, I can resign but whether Russian sports will benefit from it is a big question mark," the minister said. A bold response to the president's challenge, indeed. No other senior sports official has even bothered to offer a comment.

Putin has made it clear that in his view the feeble performance of the Russian team had nothing to do with money.

"The Russian government spent 3.3 billion rubles [$113 million] to prepare the Russian team for the Vancouver Olympics, which was five times the cost of the preparations for the Turin 2006 games, where the Russians finished fourth," Putin said. "It almost seems that the more we invest, the poorer the outcome. We are missing something here."

That something might be professionalism. One blog posting that claimed to report an overheard telephone conversation in the Olympic village has become a sensation here. In the conversation, a Russian VIP supposedly called home and complained about the Russian athletes' performance.

"These bitches f***d us up," he is said to have complained. "What do they want? We are not getting that. It was really the big bucks this time, I mean it. They rented the most expensive venue for the Russian team to celebrate in, brought three planes of Cossacks alone, caviar, champagne and all that but these bastards do not bloody win."

Anton Sikharulidze, an Olympic pairs figure skating champion who now runs the State Duma's sports committee, is busy these days giving interviews saying he is confident that Russia stands a good chance of winning more medals in Sochi than any other country. Exactly what his confidence is founded on he doesn't say.

One way of dealing with a crying child who slips on the ice is to give him a candy. A less patient parent might inflict a smack. The more intelligent parent, however, will talk the fall through with the kid, making sure the child learns a bit about how to do better next time.

Medvedev, with his angry resignation calls, seems to prefer the spanking treatment. Skating fans appear to go for the candy approach, as they try to sweeten the bitter pill for their underappreciated idol. But amazingly, almost nobody is willing to discuss specific solutions. The honorable exception is metals tycoon Mikhail Prokhorov, who heads Russia's biathlon federation and is trying to buy the New Jersey Nets basketball team. He has announced that he has developed a "Prokhorov model" for resuscitating the country's sports infrastructure.

But even though the Prokhorov plan is the only remedy on offer, politicians have yet to show much enthusiasm for it. Neither have there been any calls to produce an alternative program. Only one television feature report was devoted to Canada's brilliant and ambitious "Own the Podium" plan that was launched in 2004 and helped the country triumph in Vancouver, and to win more gold medals than any other country.

The Canadian program overlooked no aspect relevant to achieving a first-rate sports performance, from a vast athletic recruitment program, to developing high-tech equipment, building new training centers, hiring foreign coaches, and providing top medical support teams.

I have seen no discussion here of the advantages of Canada's "Own the Podium" campaign. And instead of any real analysis of Russia's failure, the experts are instead betting on whether Medvedev will insist on dismissals, and on who the victims might be. There is also a heavy dose of patriotic talk in the media apparently aimed at convincing the Russian people that in Sochi things may go OK.

But do our sportsmen and women really need true Olympic success? As the Plushenko pantomime shows, if worse comes to worst, Russian winter sports fans appear ready to sponsor the manufacture of as many gold medals as their heroes fail to win at the actual games.