Soviets Doing Without as Olympics Approach

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Less than two months to the opening of the 1992 Winter Olympics, and Tamara Moskvina prowls the streets of St. Petersburg in search of meat and bread for her pairs figure skaters.

Moskvina juggles a life of food lines and practices, ensuring that world champions Natalia Mishkutenok and Artur Dmitriev will be properly fed, clothed and trained.

The once-glorified Soviet sports apparatus that has brought so much gold home from the Olympics is struggling in the midst of a crumbling empire.


“Conditions for sport won’t be improved very quickly,” Moskvina said recently. “It’s not the first need for our people. Coaches are finding other jobs or leaving for other countries. People are thinking about where they get food and soap. No one is interested in sports.”

The Soviet Union might be dead politically, but its sports teams -- filled with athletes from 12 republics -- will be alive, marching under the hammer-and-sickle flag at the Winter Olympics in Albertville, France, Feb. 8-23. The three independent Baltic states, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, will send athletes under their flags.

“We have some problems, but we will be there,” said Vitaly Smirnov, president of the Soviet Olympic Committee.

The Soviets also say they will attend the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain. Despite shortages of money and despite all the political turmoil of the last four months, the Soviet sports machine is expected to perform superbly in the short term on the strength of its existing talent pool.

Juan Antonio Samaranch, the International Olympic Committee president, will meet March 9 with the heads of the 12 republics’ sports federations to solidify their plans for the Soviet team in Barcelona.

But there are no guarantees beyond 1992.

“There is no Soviet Union anymore,” said Igor Ter-Ovanesyan, head of the Soviet track and field federation and a two-time Olympic long jump medalist. “The great problem will be the symbol -- the flag, what kind of music we’ll play in the Olympic Games.”


Soviet sports officials find themselves trying to keep pace with historic changes triggered by the failed coup in August and by the latest political upheaval: Russia, Byelarus and Ukraine forming the Commonwealth of Independent States on Sunday.

The nation’s sports bureaucracy had shut down two days earlier.

Gossport, the government arm that provided money, manpower and paper-shuffling muscle, closed after its officials said they no longer could meet a payroll to keep the state system of 25,000 athletes and 12,000 coaches operating.

Smirnov insisted that by the end of this week a new sports bureaucracy would be in place, cobbled together from elements of the remaining 12 republics.

“If the Ministry of Health is closed, what does that mean? That all hospitals are closed and people who are clients will be turned to the streets?” he said. “That is not true. But, of course, we have some difficulties.”

“They’re just going to Band-Aid together things for 1992,” said Bob Edelman, University of California-San Diego history professor and author of a forthcoming book on Soviet sports.

Since joining the Olympic movement in 1952, the Soviets have won more medals than any other nation, 1,212. But the glitter of gold is no longer important in an unraveling empire. The wounds sustained by political turmoil and economic collapse have been evident in Soviet sports for the past year.


The men’s basketball team, Olympic gold medalists in 1988, lost its Lithuanian stars to Baltic independence. The Soviets’ only state-of-the-art bobsled and luge run was in Latvia, another now-independent Baltic state.

Artur Irbe, a hockey goaltender from Latvia, refused to play for the Soviet national team and is now with the National Hockey League’s San Jose Sharks.

For skaters such as Mishkutenok, 21, and Dmitriev, 23, the dream of winning a gold medal sustains them through an autumn and winter of sacrifice. They have watched as their hometown has changed names, from Leningrad to St. Petersburg. They have practiced on pavement and trained on ice. They have come to grips with an economy in which the price of two pounds of meat has soared from two to 100 rubles.

Yet, last month, despite the chaos in their lives, they performed splendidly to win an important pre-Olympic event in Albertville. Afterward, they sat on a podium, smiles crossing their sweaty faces as they answered questions.

Moskvina, a tiny woman dressed in Western leather and feathers, broke in then and said: “If you people who have any connections with industrial companies, if you like to help Soviet skaters prepare for Olympics, please suggest their names for sponsorships.”

It was yet another sign that the outstretched palm may be replacing the hammer and sickle as the symbol of a decaying empire.


But Moskvina and her skaters say they are willing to take their first tentative steps toward capitalism. A Soviet pair has won a world championship 24 times in the past 27 years. But the dynasty is threatened by the new Soviet reality. Even before Gossport shut down, Moskvina expected a post-Olympic cutoff of her 1,500-ruble-a-month salary, three to five times what the average Soviet makes.

“We won’t dominate until rich parents appear and pay for training,” Moskvina said. “We don’t have any rich people yet.”