Little Red Machine : Russia Will Not Have Soviet-Like Success in Atlanta, but Talent, Coaching and Enthusiasm Are There


Vyacheslav Platonov, a builder of the Soviet sports empire, landed on his feet when it collapsed. His new coaching job, in Finland, came with a car, a house and a life of comfort he had never known.

But last fall, the world's premier volleyball coach made a patriotic decision. Faced with renewal of his three-year contract, he gave it all up and came home to rescue a struggling Russian men's squad, which was on the verge of elimination from the Olympic qualifying round.

When the first of Russia's 409 Olympians left Friday for the Games in Atlanta, Platonov's towering, vastly improved volleyball players were among them, contenders once again.

Russia's Olympic team is not the Soviet powerhouse that dominated the Games during the Cold War. But as the strongest of 15 national teams splintered from the Soviet Union, it is a worthy enough successor to give America, Germany and China a good run in the medal sweepstakes.

Beset by the loss of superstars to neighboring republics and by daunting problems of finance, training and organization, the Russians have mustered impressive reserves of talent and commitment for their first Summer Olympics under the Russian flag since 1912.

"We still have some resources left from the Soviet system," Platonov said in an interview at this volleyball training camp site northwest of Moscow. "We have world-class athletes in nearly every sport. We probably lead the world in the number of professional coaches. And one resource that hasn't been totally corrupted is our enthusiasm for Russia."

That is, indeed, true of Viktor Avdeyenko, who turned down a Mercedes-Benz, a luxury apartment in Rio de Janeiro and a megabuck contract last summer to build an Olympic swimming team for Brazil. Instead, he remains in Volgograd, a depressed industrial city in southern Russia, begging for donations to keep his Spartak Swim Club alive while turning out world-record holders.

He has trained Alexander Popov, the defending Olympic champion in the 50- and 100-meter freestyle, butterflier Dennis Pankratov and backstroker Vladimir Selkov. Besides their excellent prospects for individual gold in Atlanta, they make up three-fourths of the world's fastest 400-meter medley relay team.

Then there is Mikhail Mamiashvili, a 1988 Olympic champion who has turned down several offers abroad and remains coach of Russia's experienced and intimidating team of wrestlers.

"The country is living through a very complicated period," Alexander Karelin, the dominant Greco-Roman heavyweight wrestler in the world, said during a break in training for Atlanta. "But we are fortunate that our coaches have not run off. They remain faithful to us, and this is a good example to young athletes. . . . For us, patriotism is not just a word."

During the Cold War, Soviet athletes were urged to win not only for their country but for its official communist ideology. The prestige of their Olympic victories was supported by a bureaucracy that spread into the army, labor unions and communist youth leagues of all 15 republics. It selected the best young athletes and trained them at state-of-the-art facilities.

The breakup of the Soviet Union crippled this system in several ways.

First, many stars of the Soviet era now compete under other flags. Sergei Bubka, the world's best pole vaulter, is Ukrainian. Some of the top basketball players, sailors, cyclists, rowers and gymnasts will go to Atlanta under the colors of Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan and the Baltic nations.

Prime training facilities also ended up in other former Soviet republics. Russia has signed agreements allowing its athletes to keep practicing at some. But guerrilla wars have closed the best track and field center, on Georgia's Black Sea coast, and the ideal cycling venue, in mountainous Tajikistan.

Facilities in Russia fell into disuse while the country reorganized. Only last year did the Olympic Committee reclaim Krugloye Ozero, an idyllic lakeside training facility outside Moscow, which had been turned into a nightclub and organized crime hangout.

Sharp cutbacks in state funding for sports have created a scattering of world-class Russian athletes, dubbed "legionnaires," who play for wealthy clubs abroad. While this eases Russia's burden of financing its athletes, coaches of team sports, such as volleyball, find it hard to bring them home and to get them to play well as a unit.

The cutbacks have also closed programs for younger athletes, reducing the talent pool of future Olympians.

"After these Olympics, I am a pessimist," says sprinter Irina Privalova, who won silver and bronze medals at the 1992 Games in Barcelona. "No success is achieved without financial support."

Still, some officials say the worst disruptions are over and that the sports empire is slowly reemerging as a hybrid of the Soviet legacy and the new capitalism.

"Some people have left, of course, but the core of our Soviet system--all those traditions, skills, methodology, experts, high-class coaches--is still there," said Nikolai Parkhomenko, deputy head of Russia's Atlanta-96 Working Group. "Our Soviet methodology is very powerful. . . . You Americans shouldn't relax."

The Russians will have 37 current or former world champions in Atlanta. They are counting on continued excellence in gymnastics, track and field, swimming, wrestling, boxing, weightlifting and shooting.

Popov, who left Volgograd to escape what he called "lawlessness and dirt" and who now trains in Australia, is favored to become the first man to win the 100-meter freestyle in successive Olympics since Johnny Weissmuller in 1924 and 1928.

Karelin, the refrigerator-sized Siberian wrestler, and Marina Logvinenko, a pistol shooter, are seeking gold medals in their third consecutive Olympics. He has never been beaten in international competition. She has won 17 world championships.

Despite the loss of Bubka, Russia still has Igor Trandenkov, who has cleared 19 feet. Svetlana Masterkova is the fastest woman this year at 1,500 meters. Diver Dmitri Savtin and fencer Dmitri Shevchenko dominate their sports.

And lately the country has produced some surprise world champions, such as Georgy Shaiduko in solo-class sailing, and some younger ones, such as 20-year-old Irina Stankina in the 10,000-meter walk.

Vitaly Smirnov, president of the Russian Olympic Committee, predicts Russia will win 30 gold medals. That might not top the U.S. total, but it would be a big improvement over the 1992 Games. Russia then won 17 of the 45 golds by the Unified Team--a squad consisting of athletes from 12 of the former Soviet republics competing together for the last time.

Despite the spending cutbacks of four years ago, Russian President Boris Yeltsin's government came through in the end with enough money to field a big team--and to offer $100,000 to each athlete bringing home a gold medal.

Last Wednesday, Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin presided over a rousing send-off for the athletes at Victory Park in Moscow, a monument to Russia's defeat of the Nazis in World War II.

"We were lucky that a lot of people in our government love sports, that Yeltsin loves to play tennis himself, that many ministers have sports backgrounds," said Vladimir Geskin, deputy editor of Sport-Express, Russia's sports daily. "This saved the Russian team from not going at all."

No spending figure has been disclosed, but Geskin said it cost about $1 million to prepare each athlete. Most of the money came from a special foundation set up by Yeltsin. It benefits from proceeds of sales of most of Russia's imported cigarettes and liquor, which the government has allowed to be brought into the country duty free.

Alongside the Soviet-like grandeur of the send-off ceremony were signs of the private wealth that is certain to underwrite a growing share of the Russian Olympic effort.

Dennis Primankov, a swimmer, showed up with the Reebok logo shaved into the side of his head. And between speeches and the blessing by a Russian Orthodox bishop, volleyball star Pavel Shishkin, who recently signed a $300,000-a-year contract to play in Japan, pulled out a cellular phone and urged his brother-in-law, who answered on a car phone, to hurry to the ceremony.

"The big sports machine broke down," said Peter Tsanava of Reebok, a major official sponsor of the Russian team. "But now that they've had four years of adjustment to the market economy, I'm optimistic that they're going to recover."

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