Sochi Olympics has Russians pining for a lost sporting glory
Part of hosting is trying to invent a new generation of elite athletes
You can forgive Lidiya Skoblikova her moments of nagging nostalgia.
When the 74 year old was a top Olympic speedskater, she represented a sports superpower, where athletes were as heroic as astronauts, and were seen here in Russia as foot soldiers in the ongoing Cold War.
Watch Nahlah Ayed's documentary report on Russia's sport history Friday night on The National on CBC TV.
Thanks to a seemingly disciplined and rigorous national sports program, and a whatever-it-takes approach, Soviet Russia was awash in Olympic Gold, in summer and winter alike.
Skoblikova, too, was a keen collector of gold medals. All told, she has six in speedskating, a record that has yet, half a century later, to be broken.
But where, she asks, is Russia's gold rush now?
It's a question on the minds of many here as they watch their country prepare to host the world's best athletes compete for Olympic glory.
Many Russians derive great pride from the hosting alone. Others insist Russia won't recover until it gets over its sad performance in Vancouver in 2010, where Russian athletes came away with their lowest medal count ever.
The downward spiral, however, started much earlier. Russia's legendary sports program evaporated with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and was no longer a patriotic priority.
With the money gone, coaches left and athletes faltered. As the cost of living went up, the medal count went down — rock bottom was 15 medals in Vancouver. Only three were gold.
"It's uncomfortable and very painful to watch," Skoblikova said, brow furrowed in a living room adorned with monuments to her, and Russia's, past glory.
"We are a country where nine months out of the year it's winter … I know how hard our athletes train … I'm very sad for them."
Creating role models
Russian athletes do train hard. And on Wednesday, they piled into a Sochi church to be blessed by Patriarch Kirill, who added to the impassioned prayers out there for a revival of Russia's national pride by the time the Sochi Games end.
Some of them then met Russian President Vladimir Putin, the driving force behind Sochi and a keen sportsman himself.
Rumour is that he, too, is aware that 2014 won't be a banner year for Russia's athletes. But he has done his bit to try to reverse Russia's slumping sports standards.
A cornerstone is hosting the Games themselves, a project he's coddled personally from the start in the hope that it would result in higher standards and encourage Russian youth to become more active.
Putin has often complained that today's young people are lazy and unfit. And the many photographs of him in manly, active poses seem partly aimed at creating a role model.
Another tactic, tied to the Olympics, is a machine installed at a subway station that is programmed to spit out a free ticket to anyone who does 30 squats.
Like in Soviet times, the underlying message here is that it is all about incentive. And, ultimately, money.
It's why prior to the Games, the government announced a cash bonus for anyone who manages to win a medal. Gold medalists will automatically receive $122,000.
Putin has also overseen a generous reinvestment, worth billions of rubles, into Russia's sports program in an attempt to bring it back to its former glory.
You can see the benefits in the hallways of Moscow's most prestigious Olympic schools, until recently, frozen in time since the Communist collapse.
Denis Shurshen is a cyclist who attends Moskomsport Olympics school. With the increased funding, he says he's not tempted to go abroad.
"I wouldn't change coaches again either," he said in his room after a workout. "I had a French coach and nothing came of it. I'm back with my Russian coach, and I think Russian coaches are much better now, in my opinion."
The same school offers help for Olympic hopefuls in everything from rowing to skating. And among the staff, at least, there is a conviction the new push will yield results.
One of them is Olympic champion Alexey Svirin. He was once a student at Moskomsport, long before he won Olympic gold in rowing, and he now helps run it.
He says Russians are still obsessed with being first.
"You can't have a powerful country unless you are powerful in sport," he said in an interview.
And what's wrong with silver or bronze?
"This has its roots in history I think. There's not a soldier out there who doesn't want to be a general," he said, quoting an often-used Russian adage.
Svirin took us on a rare, day-long tour of the school.
Skating world champion Maria Burskaya is one of the instructors. She too lamented Russia's performance of late, but predicted better — eventually.
Both she and Svirin suggested the new investment would take time to yield results. And she added that there is more to rebuilding a sports program than simply money.
"I would change what we see in the mass media. I would show more sports heroes on TV," she said at one point.
"Athletes should be seen as heroes, and you should have to tell children about them."
With Olympic fever taking hold here as the Games approach, that is exactly what seems to be happening.
A patriotic song invites Team Russia to score (and claims that hockey was "accidentally" born in Canada.)
And a movie about that famous 1972 hockey series with Canada has become a blockbuster. Russians raised on revering their legends, like Skoblikova, want to see new heroes born on home turf starting Friday.
Borrowing language from the Soviet past, Putin has said sports victories are good for Russia. They "boost patriotism at home…and prestige abroad."
He has apparently made clear that a gold medal in men's hockey is one victory he expects. And Skoblikova, like millions of Russians who adore the game, agrees.
"Dear Canadians. We will be trying our hardest to win this time," she said, with a smile. "I understand the Canadians, this is your national sport. But hockey is for us too."