A series of Russian disappointments at the London Olympic Games have
prompted a defensive response from sporting officials, the resignations
of at least two coaches and a mock-epic poem lamenting the cruel
vicissitudes of sport.
Most countries would be delighted with a medal count which, part-way
through the penultimate day of competition, stood at 17 golds, 21
silvers and 28 bronzes.
But fourth place behind the United States, China and Britain is an
unaccustomed position for the Russians, principal heirs to the Soviet
sporting machine that regularly topped the Olympic standings for
The mood in the Russian camp has been glum for much of the Games, but
national Olympic president Alexander Zhukov was still hoping on
Saturday for a late medal surge.
"As usual, our athletes start slowly at the Olympics and start adding medals towards the end of it," he told reporters.
"The 25 (gold) medals we had been talking about before the Games -
that was a forecast, not a plan. The Olympics is not over yet and it is
premature to draw final conclusions."
Russia's slide down the medals table at successive Games has been
gradual but perceptible - second at Atlanta and Sydney, then third in
Athens and at Beijing four years ago.
"I think we still have a chance to get the desired number of medals.
If Russia ends up with, let's say, 24 rather than 25, we will be upset,
but not strongly," Zhukov said.
In a country that has long seen Olympic success as a vital source of
prestige on the world stage, any medals shortfall is likely to lead to
anxious debate over funding, coaching and development of sport at the
"There are bound to be inquests," said a source close to the Russian
Olympic world, who noted that a meagre haul of just three golds at the
last Winter Games had prompted the development of an intensive elite
programme to ensure better results when Russia is host in Sochi in 2014.
The fencing and shooting coaches have already quit after poor team
performances in London. Women's handball coach Evgeny Trefilov, booed by
the crowd for constantly berating his players even when they scored,
told reporters after their quarter-final loss to South Korea that he was
ready to do the same.
"There's no future for Russian handball. If my resignation will help I will go now. But it won't help."
The travails of Valery Borchin, the world and defending Olympic
champion, summed up the London Games for many Russians. Second until the
final stretch of the 20km walk, he collapsed with exhaustion before the
It prompted commentator Andrei Orlov to chronicle in verse Borchin's troubles in newspaper Kommersant:
" Valery Borchin was heading for gold,
Speeding up his step
He was holding out with his last strength
Fighting for us, for the fatherland.
He fell in battle but he didn't surrender
Thank God that he's alive!"
There was heartache for Russia's women gymnasts, who wept after
messing up their floor routines to destroy their chance of gold in the
team competition, won by the United States.
Two days later, 17-year-old Victoria Komova could not even bear to
wear the silver medal she won in the individual all-around event behind
American Gabby Douglas. In tears again, she removed it from her neck,
complaining it was too heavy.
Russia's biggest athletics superstar, Yelena Isinbayeva, was bidding
for a third consecutive gold in the pole vault but could only manage
bronze and later blamed the chilly London weather.
It wasn't all misery for Russia, of course.
On the athletics track, Natalya Antyukh held off American Lashinda
Demus at the line to win the women's 400 metres hurdles, and Yuliya
Zaripova cruised home in the 3,000m steeplechase. Ivan Ukhov won in the
high jump and Tatyana Lysenko in the hammer.
President Vladimir Putin, a black belt in judo, was on hand to
embrace Tagir Khaibulaev when he won the third of Russia's golds in that
sport. Russian wrestlers had captured four golds as of Friday, while
other victories have come in synchronised swimming, the 50km walk,
diving, gymnastics and canoeing.
Putin, who has made the coming Sochi Games one of his pet projects,
was quoted by Itar-Tass news agency in mid-week as saying thorough work
would be needed to review the country's performance in London.
"Those sports where our organisers and professionals were expecting
medals have seen failures, and where they did not expect gold - we got
it," he said.
It seems that for the next summer Games, the Russians will need an injection of new blood.
"Our whole team is almost the same it was in Beijing, no youngsters
have joined since, and we older ones are not made of iron, either, and
sometimes run out of strength," pole vaulter Isinbayeva told state-run
"Perhaps by the Rio Olympics, the young ones will grow up and we will
show our full might and our full fury." (Additional reporting by Tom
Pilcher in London and Steve Gutterman, Lidia Kelly and Nastassia
Astrasheuskaya in Moscow; editing by Steve Slater)