When we last saw the post-Communist commissars of Russian sport, they were pouting and spouting in Salt Lake City, claiming that the Olympic deck was stacked against them and vowing to pack up, go home and never come back.
"Without Russia, the Olympic Games would be lost!" bellowed IOC vice president Vitaly Smirnov when the star of his country's cross-country ski team was banned from racing because her hemoglobin level was suspiciously high. Back at the Kremlin the Duma voted 421-0 (with one abstention) to have Russian athletes boycott the closing ceremony (they didn't), and the chairman of the parliamentary foreign relations committee proclaimed, "It's time we remembered that the Russian Federation has only two allies—our army and our navy! We must not permit anybody to wipe their feet on us!"
That was in February 2002. Two years later the man responsible for reclaiming gold, glory and Russian pride in Athens smiles thinly and sighs, "Well, did we leave?"
Viacheslav Fetisov, a two-time Olympic champion and two-time Stanley Cup winner as one of hockey's paramount defensemen, is the latest Meester Beeg in Russian sports' epidemic of czars. Appointed in 2002 as chairman of the state sports committee, Fetisov, 46, is charged with returning his nation to a position of athletic dominance. "When you take over a system that's working well, it's one thing," he says. "But when you get a system that's not organized, well, it's a very tough situation."
Fetisov recites a familiar litany: crumbling facilities, experienced coaches emigrating to the West, TV coverage of European soccer and the NHL instead of Russian sports. Though Fetisov is making some progress, having persuaded president Vladimir Putin to fund a sports academy for up to one million youngsters, revived the mass-participation Spartakiad movement and launched a cable-TV network dedicated to Russian athletics, his grand plans are unlikely to pay off until 2012 at the earliest. That's too far off for most Russians.
"People here will look at only one thing: How many gold medals did we win, and how many for the U.S.?" says Russian sportscaster Vsevolod Soloviev of the outlook for Athens.
The Soviet Union led the gold medal standings in every nonboycotted Summer Games from 1972 through '88, but the U.S.S.R dissolved in '91, and on the two occasions that it has fielded its own team since, Russia has finished second to the U.S. In Sydney, Russia claimed 32 gold medals to the U.S.'s 40. If golds earned by other former Soviet republics had been included, the erstwhile Evil Empire would have come out on top, 48 to 40—but that's just it: Russia isn't an empire anymore.
The country's decline is evident across the sports spectrum. The women's gymnastics team was only third at this year's European championships, and the men won one medal. "In Soviet times our success was defined by soccer," Soloviev says. "But this year, neither our men's nor our women's team has qualified [for the Olympics]. We have no real competitors in rowing, and in Soviet times, rowing was our pride. Our men's basketball team didn't make it either. The main problem is that there are no reserves of talent. In Soviet times there was this huge system of kids' sports, but now there is no foundation."
In Salt Lake City, where hockey officiating was yet another element in what Leonid Tyagachev, president of the Russian Olympic Committee, alleged was an anti-Russian "witch hunt," Fetisov coached his nation's NHL-laden squad to a bronze medal. But in 2004 Russia plummeted to 10th at the world championships. With the Duma, the president and 144 million countrymen looking over his shoulder toward the medal standings in Athens, Fetisov can take some consolation from that.
"If I get fired from this job," he says with a shrug, "I can always go back and run the hockey team."