Cold war rhetoric returned to the Olympics at a hastily called press conference last Thursday during which Russian officials cited injustices they felt had been committed against their team in Salt Lake City and threatened to pull out of the Games. In the Olympics' first week, Russian figure skaters Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze won the pairs event but four days later were reduced to co-gold medalists with Canadians Jamie Sal� and David Pelletier because of judging irregularities. Then, 30 minutes before the start of the 4 x 5-km cross-country relay last Thursday, ski officials disqualified Russia's team, a favorite to win the gold medal, after a prerace test of Larissa Lazutina, a nine-time medalist, showed an excess of hemoglobin in her blood, which may indicate that she had done blood doping. The Russians complained that they weren't permitted to replace Lazutina (rules forbid changing a relay lineup less than two hours before a race) and maintained that her hemoglobin level was elevated because she was having her period. (Three days later Lazutina and teammate Olga Danilova tested positive for darbepoetin, a blood-doping drug, and were expelled from the Games.) The Russians even claimed there was poor officiating in a hockey game against the Czech Republic—that they won. Vitali Smirnov, an IOC vice president, called the officiating in that game "truly disgusting."
The rambling tirade was more than a laundry list of grievances. It may have been an attempt to curry favorable treatment the next time there's a decision involving the Russians: when Moscow bids for the 2012 Summer Games, or the next time a Russian candidate runs for a high international sports position, or if the IOC or Court of Arbitration for Sport gets involved in a drug protest involving Russian athletes, or when a sponsor ponders taking his money elsewhere because Russian athletes aren't winning many medals, or....
Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia's decreasing success and influence in sporting circles has mirrored the country's diminishing world stature. "Under the Soviet Union, we had at least a first vice president in every major international federation," says Alexander Ratner, a Russian Olympic Committee member and vice president of the International Baseball Federation. "When the Soviet Union collapsed, we lost not only these positions but also many on the lower level. Now not a single international federation president or secretary general is from Russia."
The country is not only losing ground in the board rooms but also in the arenas. Because many of the ex- U.S.S.R.'s best facilities are located in other states of the former Soviet Union, Russia still has no covered speed skating oval, no bobsled and luge track and no Alpine ski center.
Russia won the medal count at the 1994 Games but finished third four years later and sixth this year. In Utah the Russians showed that they're in a desperate fight to reverse their fortunes in the Gold War.