Day after painful day, the failures have been piling up: The Russians couldn’t catch any Olympic gold in figure skating, fumbled the early biathlon races and, most crushing of all, got trounced at ice hockey.
And, for once, this country of stoical nationalism and deep, black humor is showing signs of rage and a rare flash of public humility. From the penniless to the powerful, Russians lashed out against officials this week over the country’s performance in the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics with a vitriol seldom seen, even amid pervasive graft and lawlessness.
In bitter Internet forums and smoky pubs, fans cursed the corruption that they believe has seeped into Russian athletics, accusing sports officials of growing fat and rich even as impoverished players are forced to seek better lives abroad.
They bemoaned the bygone days of Soviet athletic glory, which was underpinned by a vast complex of sports schools and training complexes before the collapse of the USSR.
Most of all, they demanded quick, decisive change lest they be shamed at home when the Winter Games come to the city of Sochi in 2014.
“Our leaders are to blame. They should be kicked out,” snarled Yuri Sinyov, a 62-year-old pensioner who stayed up all night to watch Russia’s hockey team lose to Canada. “They’ve been at the trough for so long, and they haven’t done anything.”
Wednesday’s hockey loss, fans here agreed, was the coup de grace in a humiliating string of failures. With just three gold medals to boast for the country, Russian spectators were giving up on the Olympics and returning home early, local news reports said.
On Friday, reports circulated that President Dmitry Medvedev would not go to Vancouver for the closing ceremony. The president had said that he planned to go and that he hoped to watch the hockey finals.
About a third of the Russian players are members of the Kontinental Hockey League, their nation’s recently formed professional league that aims to be a world-class rival to the North American National Hockey League. The team was expected to help Russia bring home a fistful of gold medals.
“It’s a disaster,” said goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov after their devastating 7-3 loss to Canada, the team they were supposed to challenge for gold. “End of the world.”
In a front-page diatribe in the Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper, famed Russian figure skater Irina Rodnina took harsh aim at the sports bureaucrats who, she wrote, were shamelessly corrupt.
“The highest level of sports can raise the prestige of the nation, unite it. Yes, we need victories,” wrote Rodnina, who won three successive Olympic gold medals during Soviet times. “But how can we get them if the Olympic team is not in the mood?”
From her perch in Vancouver, Rodnina described her indignation at the sight of Leonid Tyagachev, president of the Russian Olympic Committee, eating with gusto in a restaurant, his appetite apparently undented by repeated loss.
“All of Russia is in shock,” she wrote. “And do you think those responsible for the results are really so worried?”
Politicians also swung into action. Boris Gryzlov, head of the ruling United Russia party and a figure close to the Kremlin, said that both Tyagachev and the sports minister would be summoned before parliament to justify their failings.
Imperious sports officials, perhaps sensing a whiff of their own vulnerability, were quick to blame the athletes.
“Their slightest whim was catered to. They lacked only breakfast in bed, and they could have had that, if they had asked,” Russia’s Olympic spokesman, Gennady Svets, said of the hockey team. “They proved they couldn’t play against real professionals.”
Men’s hockey coach Vyacheslav Bykov was openly enraged by the first stirrings of anger at his players.
“Let’s get the guillotine or the gallows out, yeah?” he snapped to Russian reporters in Vancouver. “We have 35 people on the squad. Let’s cut them all up on Red Square.”
Beneath the anger, there was a sense of true dismay. In a country that has been lavishly encouraged to think of itself as the latter-day heir to Soviet might, the losses are hard to swallow.
The Soviet Union’s collapse was followed by the shuttering of hundreds of sports schools; the flight of the country’s strongest coaches and trainers; and the loss of sports facilities in Soviet states beyond Russian borders.
Today’s Russia is an oil- and gas-rich place where, theoretically, people accept the curtailing of democratic freedoms because they are compensated with a rising standard of living and a sense of restored national pride.
But this year’s Games have drawn dramatic attention to the failure to translate massive oil profits into the effective reconstruction of the sports infrastructure, sports historian Oleg Milshtein said.
“It has already resulted in a huge public discussion,” he said of the Olympics. “It’s a huge stimulus to change the system, and I think it will be done.”