It's a costly undertaking for a government to identify and train world-class athletes. Much of the former U.S.S.R.'s success was predicated on spotting potential early and developing it through a network of children's sports schools. The best athletes in these schools were then handpicked for admission into the Olympic Reserve Schools. There are 22 Olympic Reserve Schools in Russia alone, and the ROC intends to keep as many of them open as it is able to afford. But the children's sports schools, the widest end of the funnel, are rapidly being closed. Smirnov says that at last count 400 have been shut down.
"Ten years ago a 10-year-old gymnast could get into a sports club for free as long as her parents let her do it," says Rudolf Nezvetsky, chief of press relations for the Sports Committee of Russia, an organization that was effectively disbanded with the creation of the ROC. "The parents saw only the positives—the privileges, the recognition. Now the parents start to see the negatives. The schools are no longer free, and the parents have to pay for the training. The kids are away from home. Injuries. Athletes don't enjoy the prestige they once did."
Vladimir Sichov, a heavyset man with piercing blue eyes, dark hair and a sad face, is deputy director of Moscow's Olympic Club for Water Sports. "Our mission here was to make sure the children swam and studied at the same time, and for this the trade unions gave us money," Sichov says. "Now the trade unions have no money, and we must raise the money ourselves. We have to earn 2.4 million rubles, so now we have to charge the kids 10 rubles a month to swim. Before, we took swimmers according to ability and potential. Now our main goal is to make money, so we take only those who can pay. We were forced to fire 14 coaches in May and turn 2,500 kids onto the street. This is happening in all sports, all over the union. Those 2,500 kids aren't going to be busy. Who knows, they might organize into gangs and thieves."
These are the words of a man who has seen the world he grew up in change before his eyes, and not, at least materially, for the better. Not yet anyway. Yurik Sarkisyan's worries, Vladimir Sichov's dismay, these are but small expressions of the monumentally difficult times being experienced by citizens of the former Soviet Union. Times that are not conducive to fun and games, which explains the ambivalence that people of the CIS and Georgia are feeling for the upcoming Olympics and the future of their sports programs.
"What does the small group of athletes on the medal stand, who are often more concerned with their own winnings than with the prestige of Russia as a great power, give to a hungry and destroyed country?" a May 15 article in Sovietski Sport asked. "These days any housewife or priest does at least as much for Mother Russia as an Olympic champion. If we need heroes and pride in our nation now, maybe it's better to turn away from the TV, come down from the bleachers and take a look around. Heroes are born out of suffering, and nearly everyone is suffering today."
Sports, today as always, are part and parcel of society, and Russian society is writhing in pain.