Digging the Gold

In less than a fortnight's time, the eyes of the sporting world will be upon China for the opening ceremony of the 29th Summer Olympic Games. The Olympic Games embody the world's greatest sporting event, involving about 10,700 athletes in 302 events in 28 sports, and about seven million spectators, with an estimated four billion viewers watching television coverage worldwide.

China has pulled out all the stops to make Beijing 2008 a scintillating event. Approximately $40 billion has been invested in the Games' preparations. The Games have already been interpreted by many as China's stately and lavish world debut as a global economic superpower.

The Chinese Olympic Committee hopes to mirror the efforts made by the government to stage the event with unparalleled success on the playing terrain, by surpassing the tally of 32 gold medals won in the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, with a field of 639 athletes - the largest ever Olympic team for China. Russia, a country sporting no less in athletic tradition, has its own outlook for the two-week-long event.

Russia is steeped in sporting legacy at the Olympic Games. During the time of the Soviet Union, its Olympic team ranked first in the total count of medals won in seven out of its nine appearances at the Summer Games. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian Olympic team has picked up a total of 243 medals.

In past Olympiads, Russian athletes have traditionally found success in disciplines demanding technical, as well as physical, precision and strength - wrestling, gymnastics and numerous athletics events. Russia still appears competent in this regard, as Minister of Sport Vitaly Mutko announced to the State Duma in June that Russia's high hopes for success lie in boxing, wrestling, rhythmic gymnastics, synchronized swimming, open water swimming, track and field, weightlifting, shooting and fencing.

Indeed, from within all the grand official talk, an air of optimism exudes. In an interview with TV news program "Vesti," Leonid Tyagachyov, president of the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC), declared that Russia also expects strong performances from their volleyball, basketball and handball teams. ROC's vice-president Vladimir Vasin, emphasized the collective nature of seeking victories in Beijing, saying that the Games will see Russia competing for second place in the overall medals' standings. "The pre-Olympic season has shown that Russia remains one of the world leaders in sport, and we rightfully set ourselves the task of competing for an overall prize-winning standing," the BBC Russian information service quoted Vasin as saying. Since the last Summer Games, during the so-called "pre-Olympic season" of world championships in various disciplines, Russia came behind the United States and China with a total of 86 medals (30 gold, 33 silver, 23 bronze).

Russia does not simply regard the total of medals obtained as a defining point for Olympic success; according to Vasin, the number of events in which Russian sportsmen demonstrate a high level of performance is also crucial for the understanding of Russia as a successful sporting nation. "If the Americans triumph in two disciplines, if the Chinese are strong in five, then we, for example, are victorious on the last occasion in eleven kinds of disciplines," Vasin opined.
This atmosphere of optimism and enthusiasm is fastened by the government's healthy financial contributions to the development of sport in Russia in the 2000s. Vast funds from state coffers are invested to construct and develop sporting facilities and programs, as well as to attract reputed sporting players and coaches from overseas to improve and strengthen sporting culture in Russia. Vitaly Mutko declared that from the period of 2005 to 2008, 12 billion rubles ($510 million) was spent from the government's budget for preparation prior to Beijing, the "All-Sport" news agency reported.

In May of this year, Vitaly Mutko professed his desire to introduce amendments to the "outdated" bonus system for winning athletes. Accordingly, ROC spokesman Gennady Shvets announced two weeks ago that the Russian Olympic Committee has decided to increase the bonuses for athletes who win medals in Beijing. Since the 1996 games in Atlanta, the ROC has awarded $50,000 to gold-medal winners, but will splash out close to $160,000, to Russia's Olympic champions. Bonuses for silver and bronze medals will be raised more than fourfold, to ^60,000 and ^40,000, respectively, from $20,000 and $10,000, the Moscow Times daily reported.

Shvets justified the rise in financial rewards to accommodate the growing cost of living in recent years. "For example, in 1996, you could buy an apartment in Moscow for $50,000. Now, that would not be enough for a good car. So we had to adjust our bonuses accordingly," Shvets remarked. In addition, the special Olympic Foundation, backed by ten of Russia's richest men including Chelsea football club owner Roman Abramovich, pledged to distribute 340 million rubles ($14.57 million) among its gold, silver and bronze medalists.

According to the Moscow Times report, local governments also reward medalists from their respective regions, giving them free apartments, cars and cash, bringing the total reward for a gold medal performance to the region of $500,000. For example, Olympians from the Chelyabinsk Region who win gold in Beijing will also win one million rubles in prize money from the region's budget, while those in second and third places will receive 750,000 and 500,000 rubles respectively.

Top government officials are hoping that such increases in prize money will provide an unprecedented impetus for Russia's athletes to seek triumph in Beijing, leading to the rise of patriotism across the country. Within government, there is the belief that patriotism, or a sense of the "feel-good" factor which unifying social events can produce, has been an integral part of Russia's sporting success on the international stage in the last ten months. In that time period, both the men's and women's Russian national basketball teams won the European Championships; the women's national handball team won the World Championships; Russia took 1st place in key events at the Biathlon World Championships; soccer club Zenit St. Petersburg lifted the UEFA Cup for the first time in its history; the Russian national ice hockey team beat archrivals Canada in the World Championships; and, lest we forget, the intrepid exploits of the Russian national soccer team in reaching the semi-finals of Euro 2008.

Moreover, this rise of patriotism within sport has been accompanied by the Russian government's increased involvement in sporting bodies and organizations. More than half of the 64 sporting federations which make up the Russian Olympic Committee are headed by top governmental officials. For example, the secretary of the Russian Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev, has been in charge of the volleyball federation since 2004, while Minister of Transport Igor Levitin became head of the table tennis federation in May 2006. Government involvement can be regarded as a means to ensure that the development and maintenance of a high standard in sport is of great national and social concern.

Clinching the Coveted Medals

Leading the Russian track and field Olympic team into the fray, Yelena Isinbayeva has proven to be one of the world's most outstanding athletes. Isinbayeva, a 2004 Olympic gold medalist and the holder of 22 world records, is the overwhelming favorite to win the Olympic pole vault crown. Less than two weeks' ago, Isinbayeva set a new women's pole vault record of 5.03m at the Golden League meeting in Rome. Her nearest rival, Poland's Monica Pyrek, had a vault 28 cms lower. One may be right in thinking that success for Isinbayeva at Beijing 2008 will be seen as more of a perfunctory act than anything overtly heroic. Nevertheless, there will be a fair dose of heroism on her part if she manages to break another world record in the Olympic Stadium.

Recent performances bode well for Russia's Tatyana Lebedeva, the 2004 Olympic champion in long jump and winner of silver (2000) and bronze (2004) in the triple jump. Lebedeva will seek to emulate her winning form which brought her gold at the 2007 World Outdoor Championships.

On the men's side, 800m Olympic champion Yuri Borzakovsky hopes to successfully defend his title. But the head coach of the Russian athletics national team Valentin Maslakov tried to deflate any high expectations of his Russian representatives as track and field favorites. "We will not regard ourselves as favorites in athletics for the 2008 Games," Maslakov remarked, as quoted by Sport TV channel. "Three quarters of Russian representation in track and field will participate in the Olympics for the first time."

Russia, a dominant heavyweight in Olympic wrestling, having bagged 14 gold, eight silver and six bronze medals in three separate Olympiads, looks set to continue its supremacy at the Summer Games. World champions Mavlet Batirov, Khadjimourat Gatsalov and Alexei Michine will be aiming for more with five Olympic golds in 2004 and seven titles at the World Championships last year.

Russia is also a notable favorite for both synchronized swimming gold medals (duet and team), having picked up both golds in the Sydney and Athens Games. Anastasia Davydova and Anastasia Ermakova, who won gold in the duet in Athens, are regarded as clear favorites to defend their gold, having won the last three FINA World Championships.
According to the All-Sport news agency, Russia's boxing team is hoping to return from the Games with six medals, including three gold, two silver and one bronze. However, head coach Alexander Lebzyak is predicting that this will be the toughest Olympics yet for Russia's boxers.

In addition to Russia's "traditional" Olympic sports, Russia is also hoping to impress in some of the world's most popular ball sports. For example, the Russian women's national tennis team features some of the top current players - an epitome of Russia's success story on the WTA Tour in recent times. Out of the six women representing Russia in tennis, five are ranked in the World's top eleven.

Both Russia's women's and men's basketball teams will be hoping for continued success on the international stage. Both teams are current European champions, while both possess talismanic players from the United States who are now naturalized Russian citizens, namely Becky Hammon and J.R. Holden.

The head of the Russian Basketball Federation Sergei Chernov recently remarked that his colleagues, involved in the preparations for Beijing, are only expecting gold from the women's team, according to Sport TV channel. In Athens 2004, the women's team was narrowly defeated by Team USA in the semi-finals of the competition.

The prospects are also looking high for the men's and women's volleyball teams. The women's team was Olympic silver medalist in 2000 and 2004, having won its first world title in 2006. The men's team is also strong, having recently defeated hotly favored Brazil for 3rd place in the Volleyball World League.

Overall, the prognosis for Russia's participation in the Beijing Olympics looks promising. Leonid Tyagachyov has declared that the supporting government has done all it can for the Games. However, the task still remains for the authorities to interpret Russia's victories following Beijing 2008, and assess if it is truly a "Russian" sporting victory - that is, the country's athletic supremacy across a medley of disciplines.

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