Russia Gets Foreigner Boost to Top of Olympic Medal Standings

Russia’s success at the Sochi Winter Games was foreign-tinged.

The hosts finished their first home Winter Games with five medals more than the U.S., their closest competitor, and a lead in the gold-medal standings as well. Yet about half of them were garnered by naturalized athletes, helped by foreign coaches.

Russian President Vladimir Putin oversaw $43 billion in spending to convert the Soviet-era Black Sea resort into a year-round destination. He was also counting on the athletes winning medals, and the country set a goal of leading the gold-medal standings. With a poor showing by the Russian men’s ice hockey team, imports including speedskater Victor An and snowboarder Vic Wild helped meet the target.

“The fact that some athletes came from other countries and got Russian citizenship doesn’t diminish Russia’s achievements,” Alexander Medvedev, deputy chairman of the Gazprom board and president of the Kontinental Hockey League, said in an interview before the closing ceremony. “It was Russia where they proved to be Olympic champions. Victor An became a champion here after severe injury and a skipped Olympics. Also look how many silver we’ve got.”

Seoul-born An matched his performance from the 2006 Games, in which he skated for South Korea, and won three golds and a bronze this month in the Black Sea resort. Wild, an American who married a Russian snowboarder and gained citizenship, took golds in the parallel giant slalom and the parallel slalom.

Medal Targets

The Russians set goals for medals that were higher than those set in Soviet times, going for 14 golds or first place in the standings.

The hosts finished with 13 gold medals, with six of them won by naturalized athletes -- An, Wild and figure skater Tatiana Volosozhar, who was born in Ukraine and competed for that country in 2010 in Vancouver. She won gold in the team event with figure skating partner Maxim Trankov.

Some of those came from sports where the nation has always performed well, such as figure skating and cross-country skiing.

The event -- the first Winter Games in Russia and the first since the boycotted Moscow Summer Olympics of 1980 -- was geared to a domestic audience. About 75 percent of the 1.3 million tickets went to Russians as Putin worked to establish a place on the world stage again.

Olympic Atmosphere

“The success of the home team is always an important part of success of the games overall,” International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach said at a news conference yesterday. If the home team is successful, he said, “The Olympic atmosphere builds up.”

The Russians had their worst performance at the 2010 Vancouver Games, and a government probe into budgeting found that many Russian coaches had no qualifications.

Now, as Putin praises Wild for his “firmness” and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev plans to buy an apartment for An, Russia’s improved performance can continue, said Cathy Allinger, a Canadian who helped the Russians organize this year’s squad. They must master new sports, she said.

Coach-Support System

Allinger, a 1976 silver medal speedskater, worked with Canada on developing a program that helped the team win 14 gold medals in Vancouver, two times more than it had in the 2002 and 2006 Games.

The 56-year-old Allinger -- who does research with her husband, Todd, a biomechanist -- found that Russia had gaps similar to Canada’s. Russians listened, and added more than 60 coaches and specialists from abroad.

“That was mostly around coach-support system,” she said in an interview. “One of the first things we said: You need the best coaches in the world.”

With five foreign head coaches working with Russian athletes, there was only one sport where Russians kept all coach-support spots -- hockey. The team, once known as the Red Machine, was the biggest disappointment for Russian spectators.

The government budgeted about 6 billion rubles ($170 million) on Winter Olympics team training, Deputy Sports Minister Yury Nagornykh told Sport-Express newspaper in June

2013. OAO Gazprom, the world’s biggest natural gas producer, donated another $130 million to the Russian Olympic Committee in 2011, and $48 million was spent on the Sochi team.

Coaching Changes

Allinger’s group got $5 million from that money, said Svetlana Zhurova, member of the executive board of the Russian Olympic Committee.

According to Allinger, Russians took heed of about 90 percent of the recommendations. Some of them, such as creation of a system of wax testing or changes in downhill skiing techniques, came too late for good results to be achieved in Sochi, she said.

Russia needs to develop athletes in snowboard, freestyle, half-pipe and other new disciplines if the country wants to continue to win medals, Allinger said.

“I’m very pleased that we are making progress in disciplines we always underperformed in,” said lawmaker Leonid Tyagachev, the former head of the Russian Olympic Committee.

An’s medals made him the most successful athlete at Sochi

2014. The ex-Korean can help his new Russian teammates train, his coach Sebastien Cros said.

Russia, which lost most of its mountain sports training facilities when the Soviet Union broke up, now has the infrastructure ready for the team to show better results at the next Winter Games in 2018 in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Sports Minister Vitaliy Mutko said.

“We won the Olympics,” Russian volunteers were saying through loudspeakers ahead of the closing ceremony.

Zhurova, who won a gold in speedskating in 2006 in Turin, says Olympic organizers and media went too far in focusing on the medal standings.

“We are violating the Olympic charter,” she says. “There would be fewer political intrigues without this race for total medal count.”

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