End of year report: Russia’s sporting successes and failures in 2014

Closing ceremony of Sochi Olympics. Source: RIA Novosti / Alexader Vilf

Closing ceremony of Sochi Olympics. Source: RIA Novosti / Alexader Vilf

The year 2014 was one of mixed emotions and results for Russian sports. The country witnessed the highs of the resounding success of the Sochi Winter Olympics, the first Russian Grand Prix and tennis star’s Maria Sharapova’s French Open win, but also saw the lows of doping scandals, the miserable performances of the national soccer team at the World Cup, and the failure of the hockey squad to win a medal at the Olympics. James Ellingworth assesses where Russian sports made the grade and where they didn’t in 2014.

There’s a strange tradition in Russian sports. At the end of each year, each of the myriad federations holds a solemn conference to produce, in effect, a school report card.

It’s a leftover from the days of Soviet economic planning, when every government agency or state-run business had production targets and hit them without fail, often fiddling the figures to create, say, a 200 percent rise in tractor output. 

In modern Russian sport, the remnant of that spirit leads to December being packed with endless headlines along the lines of: “Performance of Russian junior women’s showjumping team declared satisfactory” or “Beach soccer players fail to fulfil plan.”

So in that curious end-of-year spirit, here’s my report card for Russian sport in 2014, starting with:

The Sochi Olympics

The defining event of the year, and indeed the century, for Russian sport. February’s Winter Olympics in Sochi were dogged by problems before they began – that $51 billion price tag, for example, or the often horribly flawed hotels for media – but the end product was excellent. From the lavish yet tasteful opening ceremony to the closing of the Paralympics almost two months later, the Games were excellently organized and a resounding success.

The Russian team responded brilliantly to the challenge of being hosts, surprising many by topping the medal table. Highlights included 15-year-old figure skater Yulia Lipnitskaya becoming the youngest Winter Olympic gold medalist since the 1930s, double gold for Washington state-born naturalized Russian snowboarder Vic Wild and a resounding 1-2-3 finish for Russia in the final event of the Olympics, the men’s 50 km cross-country ski race.

The Sochi Olympics were not flawless, however. Policing was at times heavy-handed, especially when dealing with peaceful protesters, and many of the costly arenas on the Black Sea coast have been barely used since, raising questions about the viability of legacy plans. But on the whole, Sochi was a triumph for Russia.

Grade: A-

World Cup preparations

Russia is to pour 660 billion rubles into the 2018 World Cup, says President Vladimir Putin in late October. Source: Konstantin Zavrazhin / RG

As soon as the Olympics were over, focus started to shift towards Russia’s next big sports event, the soccer World Cup in 2018. This was the year that preparations really got under way, with construction now having started at almost all of the 11 host cities. It’s still early, but things appear to be proceeding largely on schedule, with little sign of the sort of chaos which dogged this year’s host nation, Brazil. Indeed, three of the venues are already finished, although that’s because they were built to host other events first.

It’s not all been plain sailing, though. Eleven host cities means 11 local elites with their own demands, pet projects and rivalries, and as a result, World Cup organizers have had to battle through an increasing number of political disputes over where and how stadiums will be constructed. Some challenges have been a little more unusual though, such as in the southern city of Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad) where, while clearing the site of the future World Cup stadium, 10 unexploded Second World War bombs were found - and thankfully disposed of safely.

Grade: B

Anti-doping

Drug tests revealed traces of a banned substance in a test sample provided by three-time Olympic champion Yulia Efimova in May. Source: Photoshot / Vostock Photo

Earlier this month, German TV channel ARD broadcast a documentary alleging systematic doping in Russian sport and appearing to feature Olympic 800-meter champion Maria Savinova confess to taking banned substances. The Russian response so far has largely been to attack the credibility of the witnesses (some of whom had previously been banned for doping 

Even without the German film, 2014 was a bad year for Russian doping. There were bans for Olympic race-walking champion Elena Lashmanova and for swimmer Yulia Efimova, who was stripped of four world records. They join more than 100 other elite Russian athletes banned for doping this year in Olympic sports alone.

In August, Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko announced a new “iron fist” approach to drug cheats, but this has yet to be backed by results. Russia already has a bad record for winning sports events only to lose the victory later in the testing lab. Results often take months to process, and samples can even be retested years afterwards, so it’s still hard to be sure every Russian victory in 2014 was clean.

Grade: C- (up for review later)

Hockey 

Ovechkin and Malkin to the rescue as team comes from behind to win 5-2 in Minsk. Source: AFP / East News

No one had as mixed a year as Russia’s national hockey team. Heavily tipped to medal at the Olympics, it seemed to freeze under the pressure, losing in the quarter-finals to Finland and breaking home fans’ hearts in Sochi. Three months later, however, and Russia won the world championship, beating those pesky Finns in the final. The world championship is very much less prestigious than the Olympics, though, so even that victory isn’t enough to secure a top grade.

Grade: C

Soccer

Fabio Capello. Source: Reuters

Russia’s national soccer team was supposed to spend 2014 getting experience of a major tournament ahead of hosting the World Cup in 2018. In Brazil, Russia mostly got experience of how not to perform at a World Cup, crashing out in the group stage without a win. In an unremittingly grim year for Russian soccer, national team coach Fabio Capello has been unpaid for six months and his team struggled in Euro 2016 qualifying, while Russian clubs faced repeated punishments for racism and major financial problems as a result of the plummeting ruble.

Grade: E

Tennis

Maria Sharapova poses with her trophy near the Eiffel Tower after winning the women's singles final match during the French Open tennis tournament at the Roland Garros stadium in Paris, on June 8, 2014. Source: AP

Maria Sharapova won her second French Open title, the fifth Grand Slam tournament win of her career, and finished the year at world No. 2, behind only Serena Williams. Not bad at all. Elsewhere, Russia’s Ekaterina Makarova flirted with the top 10 and played well in doubles with her partner Elena Vesnina. The only negative: Russia still lacks any world-class male players, though that could soon change – 17-year-old Andrei Rublev finished the year as world junior No. 1.

Grade: A

Sochi F1

Most of the people associated with F1 were surprised to see how popular racing is in Russia. Source: Vladimir Anosov / RG

Sochi didn’t just host Russia’s first Winter Olympics, it also saw the country debut as a world motorsport power. Formula One arrived in Russia in October at a new track winding around Sochi’s Olympic venues. Hosting was top-notch and, with its Olympic touch, the circuit looked unique – it was just a shame that the race was deathly dull. Partly the result of bad luck and partly due to poor course design, the first Russian Grand Prix was a tedious procession without the much-anticipated battle between championship rivals Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg.

Russia wasn’t just making progress in designing the tracks, though. Twenty-year-old Daniil Kvyat was one of the stars of the season in his debut campaign for Toro Rosso, driving so impressively that he secured a move to four-time constructors’ champion Red Bull Racing for next season.

Grade: B

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