Annals of Russian Sports Humiliation:
A Beijing Olympics Recap
In the months before the Olympics, as we’ve previously reported, Russia made news by winning a European basketball title and reaching the playoffs of a European soccer tournament. Russian fans celebrated as if some new sports era were dawning in Russia, ignoring the feeble nature of its match victories and the fact that their soccer coach was not even a Russian. We took due note of that fact, and wondered if Russia’s “victories” weren’t in fact nothing more than freak occurrences unlikely to be repeated.
So we hardly found it much of a surprise to learn that Russia wasn’t exactly able to keep a good thing going. At the Beijing Olympiad Russia didn’t even send a male or female team to the soccer events and its men’s basketball team went down to utterly humiliating defeat. Russia’s male hoopsters placed fifth out of six teams in their pool group, winning only one game in round-robin play and ahead of only lowly Iran. They ended up being ranked 9th of 12 teams in the competition, excluded from the medal round of competition and bested by the likes of Greece and China, ahead of the likes of Angola.
In other words, by the end of the games Russia appeared to be a total fraud in both the sports where it had claimed alleged glory just months before.
And there was more bad news — much, much more. In fact, that failure was only the tip of the iceberg.
As is so often the case with Russia, it at least did better on the women’s side in basketball, where its team placed second in its group behind undefeated Australia. Yet the only way Russia was able to accomplish this feat was by using an America player, Becky Hammon, to save it from disaster. Russia made the top four in the overall rankings, and beat Spain in its quarterfinals match; but Hammon scored 17 points in that contest, to lead all but one of the Russian players on the team. Without the American, no victory. How should real Russian athletes feel if their country tells them they need to bring in a foreigner with sham citizenship just to be competitive. Can’t be very good for their confidence, can it?
Russia’s lady b-ballers then, ironically, faced the United States in the medal round, where they were easily crushed by the much more powerful American side, losing in meek fashion by 15 points and getting relegated to the bronze medal contest. Couldn’t Russia have done at least that well even without an American on its team? Did Hammon really sell out her country for a lowly bronze medal, at best?
Making matters worse for Russia, not only did it fail miserably but the U.S.A. performed brilliantly, dominating the world in the total medal count and nearly doubling Russia’s achievement in gold medals. It fielded soccer teams in both the men’s and women’s events; its men’s squad did not win a medal, but it’s female team won gold. The U.S.A. also won gold in both the men’s and women’s basketball events, crushing their competition by wide margins. So the U.S.A. took gold medals in Beijing in three of the four events in sports Russia recently claimed excellence, and Russia got only one medal in those four events, a lowly bronze.
Basketball wasn’t the only place where the mighty U.S.A. slapped down the Russians, denying them a shot at the gold medal and relegating them to contending for a bronze. The same thing happened in the men’s volleyball semi-finals. Not only did the U.S. men’s volleyball team reach the gold-medal match and win it, the U.S. womens’ team also reached the gold medal match, taking silver while the Russian women didn’t even reach the medal round of play.
Russia finished the Beijing Games with a pathetic total of just 23 gold medals, in third place overall, and its gold medal total was highly misleading. As we reported previously, six of those medals were won in wrestling by athletes with names like Mavlet, Buvaysa and Shirvani — hardly names a “real” (i.e. Slavic) Russian would even recognize as being Russian because they are folks that hail from Central Asia, not Russia proper. And wrestling is hardly one of the Olympic glamour sports likely to inspire awe among world viewers. Moreover, 20% of Russia’s other gold medals came in such fraudulent non-sports as synchronized swimming (2) and rhythmic gymnastics (2). This left true “Russian” athletes with only 13 gold medals: boxing (2), flatwater canoe, women’s foil fencing, pentathalon (2), swimming marathon, women’s tennis and six in track and field — men’s high jump and race walk and women’s steeplechase, pole vault, race walk and 4 x 100 relay.
So Russia came away from Beijing with only four gold medals in significant profile events, women’s 4×100, tennis and pole vault and the men’s high jump. Not a single gold medal in a team sport! Russia finished the gold medal count only barely ahead of Britain, a nation one-third its size and hardly famous for its athletic prowess.
Russia lagged far behind the U.S.A. in both gold and total medals. The U.S.A. whipped Russia head-to-head in women’s basketball, men’s volleyball and the women’s 4×400 relay, denying it a gold medal each time. Russia didn’t defeat the U.S.A. with a gold medal on the line except in women’s foil fencing, a sport most people couldn’t care less about. The U.S.A. won nearly 60% more total medals than Russia, dominating the team sports and losing out to China in the gold medal count only because of the home country’s dominance in judged sports like diving and gymnastics. It won one-third more gold medals.
It was, in short, yet another humiliating sports disaster for Vladimir Putin’s Russia especially when comparing itself, as it is fond of doing, to the United States. But there’s more to Russia’s failure than just the medal count, much more.
First, as we previously reported, there was the cheating. Russia had actually lost the games before they even started, when a half-dozen of its best competitors were caught in a doping scandal and exluded from their events.
And then there was the pedestrian nature of Russian sport. The U.S.A. thrilled the world with bravura performances in men’s swimming and basketball, setting the record for most gold medals by a single athlete at a single games, while Russia did nothing of the kind, and fans new to Russian sport were left asking the question: Is Russia capable of producing a scintillating superstar athlete that can capture the world’s imagination the way American Michael Phelps did in the swimming pool, taking more gold medals in one games than any other athlete in any sport in history, or Usain Bolt did on the track, winning both the 100 and 200 sprints by wide margins and with world records in each, an unprecedented feat? When one compares them to Russia’s top gold medalists, like Yelena Dementieva, the contrast is appalling. When Dementieva started her gold medal tennis match, barely 10% of the seats were filled; the Chinese had to scurry to grab warm bodies and stuff them into the seats to prevent total humiliation. To put it bluntly, the world couldn’t care less about watching her play tennis, particuarly when her opponent was another unwatchable Russian player. Dementieva has no charisma and her game has no character, no firepower, nothing to dazzle or amaze. She wins only when better, more exciting players happen to fall by the wayside. And that is the story of her.
Speaking of host Communist China it, indeed, has a lot of egg on its face. It was caught red-handed using dubbed singing and virtual fireworks in the opening ceremonies, and it’s greatest singer was injured during practice by the unweildy stadium set the Chinese built. Now she’s paralyzed for life. China flubbed the playing of the U.S. national anthem for the games’ biggest star, Phelps, and its running track was ruined by rain. In one of the qualifying heats for the men’s 4×100 relay, one of the most glamourous events in the games, only four of the eight teams who started the race on the rain-soaked track finished and the Ameican team, always a star attraction in the finals, was one of them. China was even castigated for its surprising failure to provide the tacky souvenirs so coveted by Olympics fans, even though many of them are actually made in China. And then the bomb dropped: China was accused of using underaged gymnasts to compete in the women’s events, and the IOC finally launched a formal investigation.
Russia helped ruin China’s games as well, of course, and wiped out any vestigial glory to which it might have laid claim, by launching a military attack on Georgia that distracted the world’s attention in a big way and even giving rise to a formal movement to boycott the 2014 games now scheduled to be held in Sochi. Likely, China will not soon forget that egregious insult offered by Russia, and Russia can hardly be pleased to have its own future games under the threat of boycott while the Beijing contest had not even concluded. One must wonder if Russia’s so-called leaders considered that before they attacked Georgia in such a barbaric manner.
China won a lot of medals, but it should be noted that its tally was very much an illusion. The lion’s share of China’s medals came in judged events like gymnastics and diving. In straight athletic contests, China was far behind the U.S. in the overall medal count — giving rise to much speculation that China’s “home court advantage” might be influencing the judges to an improper extent. In gymnastics, for instance, a Chinese female vaulter crashed to her knees on her landing and yet still took home the gold medal, even though the silver medalist had stuck her landing.