I know there was a lot of talk about whether the Olympic Games should have been held in Russia despite the political problems at the time. I too have my concerns about having them in Russia, especially with the amount of money Vladimir Putin spent on them. However back when I was younger I used to have the belief that if a nation demonstrates their sporting prowess in the Olympic arena, then they’ve earned the right to host an Olympics. Yes that was a naive rationale I had those decades ago but that rationale would sure work for Russia.
THE FIRST SIGNS
Before the current Russian Federation and before the legendary USSR, Russia first competed as the Russian Empire. It only competed in three Olympic Games–1900, 1908 and 1912– and won a total of eight medals: only one of them gold. Nevertheless that gold was unique because it was in the sport of figure skating. Remember how I mentioned that the London Games of 1908 was one of two Summer Olympics to host figure skating until the first Winter Olympics took place in 1924? Well Russian Nikolai Panin won the gold medal in the men’s special figures event.
Then in 1917, the Russian Empire was no longer and became the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Athletes in the USSR were paid the same wages as all Russians who worked. That made them ineligible to compete in all Olympic Games between the two World Wars. Despite Soviet athletes being denied Olympic glory, an athletic revolution was happening inside the USSR at the time that would take the world by storm, provided the Olympic door would open one day.
THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING
In 1952 thanks to some IOC tweeking by President Avery Brundage who ironically was staunchly pro-amateur and slapped Olympic athletes who accepted money with big punishments including a ban from all Olympic competition, the USSR was allowed to compete at the Summer Olympics in Helsinki. They received the second-highest total of medals and would serve notice to the United States that they’d be their most legendary Olympic rival of all-time. They would have to wait until 1956 to compete at the Winter Olympics for the first time but their prowess at the Summer Games of 1952 would send a message to the sporting world.
The Italian resort town of Cortina d’Ampezzo would serve as the host for the 1956 Winter Olympics. The Soviet Union sent 53 athletes to those Olympics and walked away with the most medals. They had won six of the 24 events–including one speed skating event where two Soviets tied for the gold–and a total medal haul of sixteen. The Soviets reigned supreme in speed skating winning three of the four events. Before 1956, the medals of cross country skiing were divided by the Norwegians, Swedes and Finns. The Soviets gave them all a new rival as they came out on top winning seven of the eighteen medals including two golds. However it was hockey where the Soviets would give its biggest signs of the revolution. Before 1956, Team Canada had won hockey gold in all but one previous Olympics. Now Canada finally had a major hockey rival as the USSR won the gold beating Canada 2-0.
THE USSR’S HUGE LEGACY
Soviet dominance at the Winter Olympics would continue for decades. There would only be two Winter Olympics where the USSR wouldn’t be the top medal winner. That would be 1968 when Norway came out on top and 1984 when East Germany ruled those Games. The Soviets would also set a Winter Olympic record in golds in 1976 when the team won a total of 13. Out of the 38 events in 1976 that’s roughly one gold for every three events. Those 13 would remain untouched until the Norwegian team of 2002 equaled it and unbroken until the Canadian team of 2010 broke it with 14.
From 1960 to 1988, Soviet athletes shined like no other country winning a total of 194 medals, 78 of them gold. Cross country skiing was where they experienced their biggest success with three skiers winning three golds in a single Olympics: Klaudia Boyarskikh in 1964, Galina Kulakova in 1972 and Nikolai Zimyatov in 1980. Speed skating was the second biggest medal-winning sport. The biggest feat by a Soviet was Lidia Skoblikova who won a total of six gold medals including winning all four event in 1964. Biathlon was also a sport the USSR exceled in as they won every men’s relay since it was introduced in 1968 and would include many individual champions.
Figure skating was good for the USSR but its biggest accomplishment was in the pairs event where they churned out gold medal-winning pair after pair starting with the Protopopovs in 1964 and ended with Gordeyeva and Grinkov in 1988. Irina Rodnina would win three golds with two male partners between 1972 and 1980. Ice dancing was its second most dominant as it would win gold three of the four times it was contested until 1988. Only a superpair like Britain’s Torvill and Dean could break their dominance.
However if there was one sport where the USSR defined ‘dominance,’ it was ice hockey. From its first Olympics in 1956 to 1988, the Soviet hockey team showed its dominance like no other. The dominance was helped in terms of Olympic rules. The best Soviet players were allowed to be eligible for Olympic competition. The best Canadian and American players weren’t because playing in the NHL made one professional and in those days, an athlete couldn’t make a single penny off their sport if they wanted to compete in the Olympics. That allowed for them to win seven of the nine Olympic competitions during that time. They only times they lost the gold was in Olympic Games which the US hosted and won the gold: Squaw Valley in 1960 and the famous ‘Miracle On Ice’ in Lake Placid in 1980. Their most powerful was during the 70’s whose players at the time were believed to be even better than the best NHL pros. Their dominance through the 70’s and early 80’s came greatly from goalie Vladislav Tretiak whom many considered to be the greatest hockey goalie ever.
1992: THE USSR’S LAST HURRAH
Funny thing is whenever I return to Olympic Square whenever I visit Calgary. They have plaques listing all of the medal winners during those Games. Funny thing is they also list the three-letter Olympic nation codes that go with them. Some of which are codes of nations during the ‘Cold War,’ like the GDR (East Germany), YUG (Yugoslavia), TCH (Czechoslovakia), and the URS (Soviet Union).Unknown at the time of the Calgary Olympics of 1988, countries of the Eastern Bloc would undergo a revolution where Comunism would be overthrown either diplomatically as in Poland and Hungary or aggressively as in Romania. The USSR was showing signs of kinder gentler Communism under Gorbachev’s Glasnost and Perestroika but that didn’t come without its problems, like republics wanting their own independence. In August 1991 while Gorbachev was outside hte USSR, a group of Communists staged a mutiny in the Kremlin returning the Union to the hard-line Communist rule. Gorbachev returned declaring the death of Communism and the end to the USSR.
When the 1992 Albertville Winter Games opened, the Parade Of Nations showed the signs of the New World Order: Germany was reunified, Yugoslavia was still together but Croatia and Slovenia sent their own teams, Czechoslovakia competed in their last Olympics together and the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania that was part of the USSR sent their own teams. The most notable change was the republics of the USSR competing as the Unified Team. They competed under the Olympic flag and if ever one of their athletes won a gold medal, the Olympic hymn was played.
129 athletes from five of the twelve republics competed for the Unified Team. The women in cross country skiing were dominant with Lyubov Egorova winning two individual events and anchoring the relay. Figure skating showed continued dominance with a win in pairs and ice dance. Also for the first time came a gold medal in men’s figure skating by Ukrainian Viktor Petrenko. Until then, the highest a Soviet male skater won was a silver. There some signs of Soviet dominance wearing off with the political changes. There were gold medalists in biathlon but the men’s relay team didn’t win gold for the first time ever. There were no medals won by Unified athletes in men’s cross country skiing or long track speed skating. Even the hockey team suffered a loss to Czechoslovakia in the preliminaries. However the team came back to win gold.
RUSSIA: A NEW CHAPTER OF WINTER PROWESS
It was at the 1994 Lillehammer Games that all the republics of the former USSR first competed for their own national teams. National flags were flown at victory ceremonies as well as their national anthem played. Russia fielded a team of 113 athletes and they showed a continuation of the prowess. While host country Norway won the most total medals, Russia won the most golds with 11. Russia won three of the four figure skating events. Lyubov Egorova was back winning two events and anchoring the relay to gold. Biathlon prowess was still alive as the men won the two individual events and the women won the relay. Speed skating strength returned as they won five medals including two gold. Russia also showed skill in sports either new on the Olympic program like two medals in freestyle skiing or even in traditional Olympic sports the USSR never fared well in like alpine skiing where a female skier won a silver. Hockey however would mark its biggest changing of the guard as the Russian team would fail to win a medal.
Success for Russia’s winter athletes would continue long after the end of the USSR. However Russia would often have cases where they’d have a strong team one Winter Olympics and a so-so team the next. Nagano in 1998 would show excellent success as the Russians would win 18 medals including nine gold. The Russian women completely swept all five cross country skiing events with Larisa Lazutina winning two individual event golds, two other medals in the other two individual events and was part of the gold medal-winning relay. Russia again won three of the four figure skating events and their men’s hockey team returned to prowess albeit losing the gold to the Czechs 1-0 in the final.
The Russian team would first show signs of struggle in Salt Lake City in 2002. Sure they won two figure skating events and two cross country skiing events but their overall medal total was 13 medals including five golds. The medal total was so disappointing to Russia, the president of the Russian Olympic Committee refused to have the athletes march or dance around on field during the closing ceremony. Turin in 2006 showed a return to the winter muscle as they finished fourth in the medal tally with 22 medals including eight golds. They won two golds in biathlon and cross country skiing each and won three of the four figure skating events. They also won their first ever sledding medals with silvers in men’s four man bobsled and men’s luge. However Vancouver 2010 was a return to the down side as the team won fifteen medals including only three gold in biathlon and cross country skiing. They failed to win a medal in men’s hockey and failed to win pairs figure skating for the first time since 1960. You could understand why Putin wanted a grand team for Sochi.
THE SOCHI GAMES SUCCESS
I will only give a brief rundown of Russia’s success here in Sochi because I’m planning more of a discussion in a full blog specifically about the Sochi Games. The opening of the Sochi Olympics showed a salute to athletes of the past with speed skater Lidia Skoblikova and hockey player Vyacheslav Fetisov carrying the Olympic flag. The Olympic torch was lit by pairs figure skater Irina Rodnina and goalie Vladislav Tretiak: former Soviet athletes that not only won three Olympic golds but also are considered the best ever in their sport. Sochi definitely showed a return to Russia’s prowess in winter sport. They were back in pairs figure skating, won their first ever ladies figure skating title, showed prowess in speed skating for the first time and even won their first-ever bobsledding gold. More to come on this in my final Sochi blog.
Russia has always had a legacy in Winter sport whether it be as the USSR or as the Russian Federation. The Sochi Games further proved that legacy and also provided a future for that legacy in the years to come.
WIKIPEDIA: Soviet Union at the Olympics. Wikipedia.com. 2014. Wikimedia Foundation Inc. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soviet _Union_at_the_Winter_Olympics>
WIKIPEDIA: Unified Team at the Winter Olympics. Wikipedia.com. 2014. Wikimedia Foundation Inc. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unified _Team_at_the_Winter_Olympics>
WIKIPEDIA: Russia at the Olympics. Wikipedia.com. 2014. Wikimedia Foundation Inc. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russia_at_the_Olympics>