Russia's Winter Games of Discontent

Why the Russians are so upset about the 2010 Winter Olympics

Russia's biggest moment in the Olympic spotlight this year was also its most embarrassing: Figure skater Evgeni Plushenko's 'we wuz robbed' act after being awarded the silver medal in Vancouver. Plushenko, who won gold in the 2006 Turin Olympics, slammed this years gold medalist, American Evan Lysacek, as undeserving because he did not attempt a quadruple jump despite a widespread consensus among sports commentators that Lysacek's flawlessly performed program was superior in a number of ways.

Plushenko's unsportsmanlike petulance, backed by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, had a bizarre postscript: a television host at a Russian TV studio in Vancouver awarded the skater a platinum medal. The image of a medal with the words Platinum of Vancouver underneath then appeared on the home page of Plushenko's Web site, next to Gold from Turin and Silver from Salt Lake City, though, after public ridicule, all the labels were removed.

No fake medal can cover up Russias overall lackluster performance: 11th place in the overall medal tally and only three gold medals, a humiliating finish for a nation long accustomed to Olympic glory. Russian politicians and the press have been wringing their hands over this tragedy.

Speaking on national television, President Dmitry Medvedev declared that those responsible for the Russian team's Olympic training should make a "courageous decision" and hand in their resignations, or they would be helped along. Meanwhile, Russia's top sports officials are already blaming each other for the fiasco.

Russia's Olympic anxiety is exacerbated by the fact that in 2014, it hosts the Winter Olympics in Sochi. Touted as a source of great national pride, this upcoming event is also the source of many worries about Russia's ability to build the Olympic facilities on schedule, about the massive cost overruns, about the location's proximity to trouble spots in the Caucasus. To that, add anxieties about a possible major embarrassment for Russian athletes on their home turf.
Leonid Tyagachyov, head of the Russian Olympic Committee, resigned Wednesday. Sports minister Vitaly Mutko also reportedly already decided to step down from his post. But Mutko has made comments implying that the Russian team's showing in Sochi is unlikely to be better than this year's results. Upon his return from Vancouver, Mutko told journalists that grooming a new generation of Olympians is a task that has only just begun in post-Soviet Russia, and one that is likely to take six to eight years. When a major Russian newspaper, Moskovskiy Komsomolets, posted a poll on its Web site asking what could help Russia achieve victory in the 2014 Olympics, 49 percent of the respondents picked the answer: Nothing can help at this point.

Some commentators in Russia's still-flourishing independent press are looking to the Olympics for different lessons.
"I wish we held the coveted [11th] place in the world in at least one thing that really matters," journalist Leonid Radzikhovsky wrote in his blog on the Web site of the Ekho Moskvy radio station. "In life expectancy, for instance, or per capita income, or the levels of corruption No such luck! The best we can manage is No. 20 or even No. 70."
Radzikhovsky concludes that to build up big sports in a country with a pauperized population is criminal imperial frivolity, generally needed for the deception of these very same paupers. His sentiment is echoed by Moskovsky Komsomolet's columnist Alexander Minkin, who points out that Russia ranks 139th on some world indexes of democracy and is near the bottom of world rankings for rule of law.

Meanwhile, Boris Gryzlov, the chairman of the Russian parliament, has lamented the lack of victories in Vancouver, saying that if one were to speak of the Russian national ideal, it is, among other things, to be first, always and everywhere.

If athletics do represent the national spirit, then perhaps the Plushenko saga, with its grievances and delusions of grandeur, really does represent modern-day Russia in a nutshell.

Cathy Young writes a weekly column for RealClearPolitics and is also a contributing editor at Reason magazine. She blogs at http://cathyyoung.wordpress.com/. This article originally appeared at RealClearSports.

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  • ||

    Well at least they have their thousands of ICBMs to console them...

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    It's not like the mighty Soviets didn't suffer their share of Olympian-sized defeats. (I'm looking at you, Ivan Drago.)

  • ||

    I WILL BREAK YOU

  • ||

    Masters degree in Chemical Engineering. Fulbright Scholar. Went to MIT.

  • ||

    I just can't get over it. Even teh great James Hong is merely a civil engineer.

  • BakedPenguin||

    The TV show Futurama had at least two PhD's, a JD, and I think three Masters degrees among their writers.

  • ||

    Well, sure, writers being educated is no surprise. Conan O'Brien is an old Harvard Lampoon guy, for instance.

    But actors? Action-star actors? Named Dolph?

  • ||

    Brian May of Queen fame is a no shit astro physicist.

  • ||

    I WILL BREAK YOUR GRADE CURVE

  • ||

    Exactly. Can you imagine him on set with Stallone?

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    How long has it been since you watched Rocky IV? He says, "I must break you."

    You need to get to the video store this weekend and get yourself reacquainted with that movie. And I think you just might get reacquainted with a little something called American pride in the process.

  • ||

    I MUST BREAK YOU.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Now you're talking like the Siberian Bull!

  • ||

    Break my hot-big-booty
    this is not gonna work bro..

  • healthscarequotes||

    never has a man fallen so far. from the peaks of murdering a man in the boxing ring with 2150 psi of vodka-fueled anger to the valleys of stealing a freddie mercury beat and passing it off as song so cool, it was ice, baby.

  • ||

    Hey, no fair mixing up Vanilla Ice and Master of Chemical Engineering, Dolph Lundgren.

  • ||

    And was it Freddie's beat or David's?

  • ||

    Clearly a country with a horrible life expectancy and an even worse long term population trend and a crackpot authoritairn goverment, biggest problem is how they do in the Olympics

  • EJM||

    Russia's Olympic anxiety is exacerbated by the fact that in 2014, it hosts the Winter Olympics in Sochi.

    ...which it's hosting because PyeongChang was robbed (arguably, for the second time).

  • ||

    No kidding. I think Usain Bolt is incredible. Who cares that he is a Jamaican?

  • ||

    Russia's national spirit is vodka.

  • Vladimir||

    Im russian, but i do agree the russians can get a bit sulky about such things.

  • Lost Prophit||

    The Olympics should be more about individual heroics than the standing of any one country in terms of medal winners. Laughable to see Putin pouting in the corner, though!

  • Jon | Medical Aesthetics||

    Plushenko should be ashamed by his comments and criticism of Evan Lysacek.

  • Mo||

    2006 Turin Olympics

    Thank you for this Cathy. I hate it when people that aren't speaking Italian refer to it as the Torino Olympics.

  • ||

    The Russians are just poor losers. If they're worried about correcting wrongs from Olympic decisions, have the 1972 basketball team send their gold medals to the US.

    Get over it guys. It's only a game.

  • BakedPenguin||

    Fuckin' A. My father's friend (an lt. stationed in Germany) was at that game, and said he was amazed at how blatantly the US got robbed.

  • ||

    Henry Iba was the coach of that team. He was the coach at my alma matter. I got to meet him once for a journalsim class I had. He told me that someone in the crowd stole his wallet after the game was over. It was insane.

  • ||

    Don't even think that the Russian will do it. It's Russia's Miracle on Basketball Court when Russians scored in the last three seconds. Nobody ever heard about controversy.

  • ||

    I hate it when people that aren't speaking Italian refer to it as the Torino Olympics.

    Ditto. There is no quicker way to signal "I am a smug and pretentious poser" than ostentatiously aping foreign pronunciations and spellings.

  • K-Y||

    Yeah, it drives me absolutely nuts when non-english speakers attempt to correctly pronounce things when they speak english.

  • ||

    That's not what they're talking about and you know it. Nobody expects Spaniards, speaking spanish to say New York, they say Nueva York. Similarly Meeamee, etc. Not even the most pretentious says "Paree" or Moskva in English, they say Paris and Moscow. It's the English translation of the foreign city name. The modern affectation of aping the foreign pronunciation is just that, a pretentious affectation meant to display your worldliness.

  • Martin||

    Uh, yeah. That's the only possible explanation.

  • ABC||

    Shut up peasant.

  • ||

    Is it just me or does it seem like Cathy Young has wet dreams about waking up an being back in the cold war era?

    It is amazing that the interventionist amongst us who will lecture about the evils of not bombing enough people and can't figure out the correct definition of "isolationism" are the most fucking nationalist people around.

    I hate to use the "serious" put down, BUT NOBODY SERIOUS gives a fuck about how Russia or any other country did in the olympics. If they did, this crap is on the dummy tube 24/7 for the last month, they are probably at Reason for something else.

  • ||

    According to you the 33 million citizens of Canada "aren't serious." I was there during the Olympics - the talk about medal counts and Canadian athletes was incessant. Actually, that probably proves your point...

  • ABC||

    Maybe she feels the need to prove her loyalty.

  • ||

    I'd say Putin is serious.

  • ||

    "Radzikhovsky concludes that to build up big sports in a country with a pauperized population is criminal imperial frivolity, generally needed for the deception of these very same paupers."

    I don't see how you can be competitive without a leisure industry centered around winter sports. A national effort probably wouldn't have discovered and developed a Shaun White--that kind of thing takes a consumer product industry that sells everything from snowboards to energy drinks.

    You need parents with the discretionary spending to get their kids into this kind of thing in the first place too.

    No government program can compete with that. ...better work on getting your people some leisure time and some discretionary income. 'cause it sounds to me like the frivolity's only for the imperials, and that's the problem.

  • ||

    A government program can damn well compete with that. You just have to have a totalitarian government that grabs kids out of pre-school and forces them into training. The Soviets did quite well in just about every sport doing that thank you. If there were still a USSR, there would be plenty of Russian kids doing the halfpipe under the compulsion of the state.

  • ||

    I would actually welcoming seeing a well groomed, humorless, steely-eyed product of totalitarianism trying to kick Shaun White's ass. It would be great spectacle.

  • BakedPenguin||

    Did you see the Chinese women try to compete at snowboarding? There you have it.

    Admittedly, they'll probably do better at Sochi. But I'd say the US "program" of kids having fun will produce better snowboarders anyway.

  • ||

    Since you have to be stoned to properly snowboard, that sport is an exception to the general rule.

  • ||

    I'd like to see a "where are they now" about the 99% of Eastern bloc Olympic program kids who didn't end up Olympic medalists. What does being raised in that environment do to you when you're released into the real world?

  • ||

    John does a good job of bringing out the problems for utilitarian argumentation for libertarianism. If the goal is really half pipe gold medals and I am some sort of overlord for a country(just saying), there are plenty of horrific laws that could be implemented that would help get your country more olympic gold medals than a more free country might have.

    Who is setting the goals? If Gross National Income is the goal then...maybe we should make it against the law to have stay at home moms? this would increase national income!! more moms paying payroll taxes instead of doing blackmarket work...this is good right? Some companies with less than 5 employees don't show up in national payroll data for various reasons...lets cut off the arms of anyone working for companies with less than 5 people.

  • ||

    If you have overall societal goals you want to inflict on people, you have to have central control. To truely embrace freedom, you have to look at it as an end in itself. What if being free causes everyone to stay home and smoke dope every day? Does that mean we should force people to work more? I don't think so.

  • ||

    "If the goal is really half pipe gold medals and I am some sort of overlord for a country(just saying), there are plenty of horrific laws that could be implemented that would help get your country more olympic gold medals than a more free country might have."

    No, you can't. That's the point of...well...everything.

    A totalitarian cannot compete with another nation with lots of parents and kids with leisure time, discretionary income and a dream.

    They may get lucky every once in a while. but they can't win, place or show on a consistent basis.

    There's a reason professional athletes are better than amateurs, surely you understand that? It has to do with resource management and the development of talent and a whole lot of other variables no totalitarian regime could ever keep track of...

    DEMAND KURV!

    ...Sorry, had to get that out.

    I get kinda frustrated sometimes with my fellow libertarians... They can talk evolution and falliblism, with the best of them, utilitarianism and so on, but somehow they forget the Adam Smith 101...

    No. Central planning cannot outperform a bunch of individuals, and moms and dads, and snow board companies and Red Bull, all pursuing their own individual interests...if the totalitarians could, then North Korea would be huge--they'll starve their people to build a fake city to show the world! You don't think they'd like to win at the Olympics?

    They can't.

    ...and the reason the totalitarians fail--at the Olympics and elsewhere--is because they're incapable of making better decision from the top down than all those individuals and companies can make for themselves.

    And it doesn't matter whether it's Obama or Kim Jong Il calling the shots, and it doesn't matter whether it's the Olympics or healthcare, the central planners and the top-downers will always under-perform because of that.

    And for some reason, that fact makes a lot of people angry. I suspect it's because a lot of us think other people--be it a party or a politician--are the answer to our problems, and it's ideological idiots like me that are standing in the way of the solutions. But we're the solution to our own problems, really...

    And even at the Olympics, it shows.

  • ||

    "There's a reason professional athletes are better than amateurs, surely you understand that?"

    In general, they wouldn't be professional athletes if they weren't better than amateurs.

  • ||

    Professional athletes get access to resources, training and funding less talented people can't get access to.

    Tony Hawk found Shaun White when he was 9 years old. Red Bull built a half-pipe for Shaun White in his back yard. How does a top-down totalitarian program compete with that?

    Another 2 million little would be Shaun Whites will ride a snowboard for the first time next year--how does a top-down totalitarian regime compete with that?

    ...and it isn't just that the pros get the funding. It's also that less talented people get their funding cut off.

    Russia's best athlete is Alex Ovechkin. And there's a reason for that. The sport Canada is most competitive in is hockey--and that's for the same reason.

    Broken clocks tell perfect time twice a day, and every once in a while David beats Goliath, but no government program will ever be as competitive on a consistent basis as a professional sport with entrepreneurs always out there evaluating talent and developing players.

    Want to be competitive? Cut taxes and spending so more people have more money and time to pursue leisure activities.

    Oh, and they might make a point to stop damning frivolity--we invent whole new sports and self-supporting industries (like snowboarding) out of nothing but frivolity. You know, everything beyond a studio apartment, a loaf of wheat bread and a multivitamin is frivolity.

  • ||

    "Tony Hawk found Shaun White when he was 9 years old. Red Bull built a half-pipe for Shaun White in his back yard. How does a top-down totalitarian program compete with that?"

    The same way they always have - they take the kid away from the parents and ship them off to a centralized sports school. See Soviet block and China for references.

  • monolith||

    East Germany had huge success in the olympics. For sports that aren't that popular you can quite easily buy success.
    For popular team sports like soccer its much harder.

  • ||

    Yeah, I don't think there's any question that when one country uses anabolic steroids with impunity, and others do not, that a small country can have success.

    "This state-sponsored doping regime played a decisive role in the dazzling success of East German athletes in international competitions - most notably at the 1976 Montreal Olympics and the 1980 Moscow games. But it also left a terrible legacy, the athletes' lawyers argue.

    The victims all received Oral-Turinabol - an anabolic steroid containing testosterone made by Jenapharm. The "blue bean" had astonishing powers - accelerating muscle build-up and boosting recovery times - but its subsequent side effects were catastrophic: infertility among women, embarrassing hair growth, breast cancer, heart problems and testicular cancer. An estimated 800 athletes developed serious ailments."

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/spor......gdnsport3

  • V-Man||

    That does explain why the modern Russian team performs worse than the US team. It does not explain how the Soviet team was way better than the modern one, when the central planning was even worse - after all, private sponsorship is no longer illegal.
    I read an editorial in a Russian business publication that seems to offer a plausible explanation: in the Soviet times sport was the only way to success for kids who did not do well in school and whose parents had no Party connections. If they did not manage to succeed in science, the arts, sports or Party nomenklatura the only way to go was to the factory (or something illegal, like starting a business). This is why those kids would be eager to try out in as many sports as possible, in the hope of getting accepted into an "Olympic Reserve Sports Academy", publicly funded and centrally planned, of course.
    Nowadays, with Soviet sports facilities deteriorating and funding drying out, kids whose parents cannot afford to finance an Olympic training do not get one, while kids from well off families can choose from a much wider range of career choices and their parents do not really see sports as the best choice. And a slight increase in economic freedom is probably better than lots of Olympic medals.

  • ||

    A lot of Russians actually thought "losing" the Olympics was a good thing. Felt bad for the athletes, but it was worth it to see the Russian Olympic bureaucrats, who live high off the government hog, get humiliated. And for the record, Plushenko was right to feel cheated. If figure skating is a "sport" then the best athlete should win, not the best "artist." Give me a break.

  • ||

    Rule of thumb - no activity where the winner is determined by judges scoring their performance is a sport.

    Yes, that includes aerial skiing and snowboarding, diving, gymnastics, etc., regardless of the fact that the top-level players are all extraordinary athletes.

  • ||

    And boxing.

  • ||

    Plushenko is a sore loser of the worst kind. The rules are the rules. Everyone has been competing according to them in the last five years. That includes Plushenko who won a gold medal in Turin four years ago.

  • ||

    Makes me long for the days when the Soviets produced the best dumb (Olympic) jocks in the world. (Except for those East German Youth Sex teams of course.)

  • ||

    East German Youth Sex teams

    Wait, what?

  • ||

    Is this an Olympic sport? When is it on? I'll settle for practices.

  • ||

    You mean you guys have never heard of Roller Fucking?

  • ||

    C'mon people. Show some restraint with the posting of vulgar language. It is one thing to talk like that in a group of your peers, it is another to infringe on my (and other's) sensibilities about vulgarities on a national basis.

  • ||

    Jesus H. McChrist! Don't get your fuckin' tits in a flutter Chief. It's a goodam cocksucking blog. Ya think the pimply faggot faced teenagers don't use up your ass language like this?

  • ||

    That's makes perfect sense. After all, "pimply faggot faced teenagers " are Reason's target audience.

  • ||

    I am shocked -- shocked! -- at such language from Navy personnel.

  • It's a goodam cocksucking blog||

    I think I've found my new handle for tomorrow.

  • Delta||

    You are despicable.

  • Mr. Putin||

    (sigh)
    Reality sucks.

  • prolefeed||

    No. Central planning cannot outperform a bunch of individuals, and moms and dads, and snow board companies and Red Bull, all pursuing their own individual interests...

    Actually, central planning can beat individualism at any given small and unimportant task, such as winning Olympic medals, if enormous resources and time are misallocated to the effort. The result is sub-par performance elsewhere in that society due to the misallocation, of course.

  • ||

    The Olympics in a totalitarian society are like the Coliseum in old Rome. The point is to keep the peasants distracted.

  • strat||

    Former readers of Omni Magazine will remember "The Mickey Mouse Olympics" by Tom Sullivan. I really have to go find that story again. I read it when I was 14 and still remember it like it was yesterday.

  • DJF||

    “”””No fake medal can cover up Russias overall lackluster performance: 11th place in the overall medal tally and only three gold medals, a humiliating finish for a nation long accustomed to Olympic glory. “”””

    Could someone at Reason Mag please tell Ekaterina Jung (alias Cathy Young) that Russia does not have a long history at the Olympics, she keeps on mixing up Russia with the Soviet Union. Maybe she just can’t forget her families privileged position in the Soviet Union and dreams of the good old days.

  • ||

    Only us members of the Inner Party (or us Plutocrats) had access to the Youth Sex competitions.

  • Plutocrat||

    Were you there for the '08 tryouts, when Hans Gruber threw that 1280 double McTwist? I did not know that a human was capable of that kind of flexibility.

  • ||

    No-one who was there will ever forget that, but for my money the greatest moments were both in '84: Liesl Knobgabler's Knee-walking Deep Throat routine, and Horst Schlongspitzel's amazingly sustained Three-point Willing Participant.

  • bob||

    I can't believe nobody has mentioned:

    In Soviet Union, gold medal win you!...

  • La Russophobe||

    This article contains an error. Russia was not 11th in overall medals, it was 6th. It was 11th in gold medals.

    Moreover, Russia isn't #70 in life expectancy. It's #137, so the Russian analyst Radzikhovsky was being far too optimistic.

    It's also worth noting that Russia predicted it would win 30 medals in Vancouver, improving by 1/3 on its take from Torino. In fact, it took only 15, a 1/3 decrease from Torino. Along the way, Russia was designated the worst cheater at the games in terms of illegal doping, and its team of hockey professionals was mocked by experts as "euro trash." In a pathetically cowardly manner, Russia's "president" canceled his plan to appear at the games rather than face his own country's record of performance on the field in and off. In short, there is no way Russia's performance this year could have been any more disgraceful or humiliating.

    Commenter Vlad is also very wrong. The New York Times has clearly shown that quad jumps have not been recognized by judges as key to winning, and Plushenko's performance was recognized by all objective observers as technically inferior to Lyacek in every other aspect of the routine. The sport is figure SKATING, not figure JUMPING, as many have noted.

    The arrogance and ignorance of Plushenko, acting as if there was no need to hold a competition but rather only a coronation just for him, is typical of the Russian Kremlin's worldview, and explains why Russia is so unable to reform as to not even rank in the top 100 countries of the world for lifespan. This blind arrogance brought down the USSR, and it seems Russians have learned nothing from that catastrophe.

  • ||

    Oh shit, I was supposed to watch the Olympics! How unpatriotic of me.

  • CE||

    My plan to fix the Olympics:

    No more national teams. No more national anthems at the medal ceremonies. Let those with a vested interest in the outcomes train the athletes and form the teams -- Nike vs. Reebok vs. Adidas vs. any other shoe company that feels like they can compete.

  • srm||

    They should have gave the Gold to Russia. Plushenko was the only true athelete on the ice that day. The American performance was just theatricle and overly choreographed. The olympics used to be a competition among atheletes not a competition among artsy faggy choreogrophy... The quadruple should have sealed the victory. In a real competition among atheletes the quadruple would have won him the gold.

    All you can expect now in the future from the olympics is a bunch of fags dancing on ice.

  • ||

    "All you can expect now in the future from the olympics is a bunch of fags dancing on ice."

    Cool! Does this mean you'll continue your figure skating watching/twister parties?

  • abercrombie milano||

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  • Horny Randy||

    You would think the Russians would have more pressing things to concerns themselves with.

  • ||

    It's not like the mighty Soviets didn't suffer their share of Olympian-sized defeats.
    Fat People

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