Field of Play: Russians strive to recapture lost Olympic glory | Sports | CBC Sports CBC Sports - Sochi 2014

OlympicsField of Play: Russians strive to recapture lost Olympic glory

Posted: Tuesday, February 5, 2013 | 03:03 PM

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Russia's Yulia Tchekaleva led the pack for part of a World Cup women's cross-country race last weekend on a Sochi course that some say favours the home team. (Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images) Russia's Yulia Tchekaleva led the pack for part of a World Cup women's cross-country race last weekend on a Sochi course that some say favours the home team. (Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images)

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The overwhelming impression the emerging Olympic city of Sochi leaves on visitors these days is of a Russian sports machine that's rebuilding in a hurry.
SOCHI, RUSSIA -- It's a feeling you get by paying attention to what's happening in Sochi. The overwhelming impression this emerging Olympic city leaves is of a Russian sports machine that's rebuilding in a hurry.

It's all about pride.

2014 will mark the first time in history that this country will host an Olympic Winter Games. The folks here, in particular the leader of the county, Vladimir Putin, see it as a chance to shine, and most definitely an opportunity to recapture lost glory.

"As a fan of sport, I hope Russian athletes can achieve what Canadians did in Vancouver, or the results of the British in London," said Dimitri Grigoriev, the venue manager for the Adler long track speed skating oval. "I'm just not sure we got started in time."

It's not hard for those of us of a certain generation to remember the days when the Soviets were a sporting powerhouse. It was a force that prided itself on dominating the Olympic stage, particularly in the winter editions of the Games.

Their figure skaters have been iconic, Nordic skiers and biathletes pre-eminent, and hockey players -- well, let's just say in the old days they were darkly menacing for their international opponents.

That said, since the breakup of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, Russia hasn't been able to lead the pack the way it used to. But Sochi's frenetic building boom is stark evidence that this may be about to change.

"I could have never have imagined the grandeur," gushed Dimitri Chernomorskiy. He's working with the Sochi 2014 organizing committee in the sports presentation department.

Chernomorskiy has just returned to his native Russia after spending 21 years in Toronto. He marvels at what's been envisioned for this Olympiad.

"So much work... so much effort... so much money," he concluded.

Home-course advantage

The opulence of the Mountain Cluster of venues is testament to what Chernomorskiy is talking about. The Whistler-inspired village at Rosa Khutor waits expectantly to wow the alpine skiers.

The Laura Cross-Country Ski and Biathlon Centre has been laden with snow in recent days and it literally sparkles in the sunshine. The cross-country athletes from Canada who competed at a recent World Cup race here are convinced that it's been designed to favour the competitors from home.

"The Russians have built courses that play to their strengths," figured Devon Kershaw of Sudbury, Ont. "These are the toughest I've ever seen. There's plenty of climbing involved and the Russians love that."

Indeed, perhaps the most popular athlete in Russia today is a 29-year-old cross-country skier by the name of Alexander Legkov. He's just won the grueling stage race through Italy and Germany known as the Tour de Ski. But in the two previous Olympics in which he's competed, Legkov has not been on the podium. In Sochi it's taken for granted by organizers and fans that he most certainly will be. He must be.

Talk about pressure.

There is also a measure of yearning at work here.

It's glaringly obvious that Russian fans love winter sport. While they enjoy their freedom from the defunct Soviet regime, they long for greatness in athletics and ache for victories on home turf that were abundant in the old days.

Dasha Gaiazova was born in Russia, but in her teenage years emigrated, with her family, to Canada. Along with Perianne Jones, Gaiazonva combined for a team sprint bronze medal wearing the colours of her adopted country at the World Cup test event in Sochi barely a year out from the Games.

"It's strange, but the Russians all want to interview me now," she chuckled. "And my grandmother was watching on TV just outside Moscow and she was so emotional because I won a medal."

Hockey is 'everything'

At the last Winter Olympics, in Vancouver, Russia finished 11th in the medal standings. Their athletes ascended the podium a mere 15 times and earned only three gold medals. It was unfamiliar territory for a once unchallenged sporting nation.

To make matters worse, the Russian men's hockey team has not won an Olympic medal of any kind since the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City. Already the whispers abound that such a shameful result cannot be allowed to happen here in Sochi.

"Everything is about winning the gold medal in men's hockey," said Igor Kuperman. He was on the Russian management team in Salt Lake City and helped with the startup of the KHL after working in the NHL with the Winnipeg Jets and Phoenix Coyotes.

"Honestly, we can win all the other medals in Sochi, but if we don't win men's hockey gold then the Olympics will be seen as a loss."

Quite clearly, Russian pride is raging this close to the home Games. The intensity is mirrored in the building frenzy giving rise to the new palaces of sport at Sochi Olympic Park.

There's just no doubt that modern Russia is undergoing another revolution. It's happening on their fields of play.

In a year's time, their athletes will aim to deliver the goods and dominate once again.

Scott Russell is the host of CBC's Sports Weekend. Follow him on Twitter @SportsWkndScott and @TheFieldofPlay.

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