Russia plays down its medal chances at Sochi as Games quickly approach
By Dmitry Zaks, AFP
December 29, 2013, 12:07 am TWN
MOSCOW--Russia's sports minister on Saturday played down the host's chances at the upcoming Winter Olympic Games in Sochi following a bitterly disappointing 2010 performance in Vancouver.
The Soviet-era winter sports superpower managed just three gold medals in Canada — a finish that left it lagging in 11th place on the medals table and prompted an overhaul of the entire Olympic federation.
Russia responded by spending lavishly on top foreign coaches and pouring huge funds into new facilities that could help train a new generation of athletes for the February 7-23 Games on the Black Sea.
The Games' success also carries heavy political overtones for the Kremlin amid its efforts to use patriotism to mobilize support around President Vladimir Putin's 14-year rule.
Putin staked his personal reputation on the Games' success by lobbying for Sochi's candidacy before the International Olympic Committee and then spending more than US$50 billion for the event.
But Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko said on Saturday that fans should not expect miracles from their team just because it was performing on home snow and ice.
“In my opinion, our situation is more difficult in the winter sports than it is in the summer ones,” Mutko told the Russian state's rolling news channel.
“There are 98 sets of medals being contested in 14 sports. And only five them are our traditional ones in which we once had success,” the sports chief noted.
Mutko said he would be happy if Russia finished in the top five in the medals count thanks to residual strength in more traditional events such as cross country skiing and ice hockey at which the Soviet Union excelled.
But he said the country's overall economic troubles and slow pace of post-Soviet scientific advancement made it difficult to compete in sports such as bobsleigh where technological breakthroughs gave teams the edge.
“Any Olympic podium finish is not only the result of work performed by the sports ministry or the minister,” he said in a seeming effort to deflect blame for potential disaster in Sochi.
“Today, it is also the achievement of the country itself. It is a reflection of its level of social and economic development. It is the level of the development of its science and technology,” he said.
Mutko was appointed sports minister in 2008 and survived the post-Vancouver purge thanks to warm relations with Putin that stretch back to their early political carriers in native Saint Petersburg.
The sports minister had promised on March 12 that the “only estimated and expected result” in Sochi would be a top of the podium finish in the final gold medals count.
But a string of poor performances in this year's various winter sports championships — from cross country skiing to figure skating — prompted Mutko to mention a few weeks later that a top three finish was also a fair result.