Cold War on Ice

February 21, 2010

by Pat Ryan

Are you getting tired of the long, cold winter around here? Just consider the long, cold winter it’s going to be for the 2010 Russian Olympic officials who can hear the wolves back home howling for their skins. After just five days into the Vancouver games the once fearsome Olympic medal machine from Moscow is poised to plumb new depths of mediocrity in the 17 days of competition on ice and snow that will conclude with the handover of the keys to the next winter games to the Russian Federation.

The Russian, formerly Soviet, Winter Olympic teams have never finished below sixth in the medal count and after five days of competition they were a lock for 11th place with three medals – one gold, one silver and one bronze – compared to 14 for Team USA. The sad start for a team that enjoys a formidable legacy has Russian politicians calling for the sacking of government officials and athletic leaders. The “Moscow Times” headline the other day said, “Heads Will Roll for Dismal Olympic Performance.” And that was before the highly touted Russian hockey team was stymied by underdog Slovakia, dropping a seventh-round shootout in the early morning hours of Friday.

It’s still early in the hockey competition to count out the NHL superstar-heavy Russian lineup, but even if they live up to expectations they could only hope to add one medal to the total. Meanwhile, the speaker of the Russian parliament, Boris Gryzlov of the ruling party, said the Vancouver Olympics would be considered a failure if they placed anywhere below fourth in the medals race. Good luck, Boris.

It was truly bipartisan grumbling as an opposition party figure jumped in with calls for the Olympic committee leader to resign now and for the government minister responsible for sports to step down if the Russian team “does not start winning.” Both officials will be called to testify before the parliament back in Moscow. It’s not just the clock at the speed skating oval that’s ticking.

The prospect of a tarnished image for Russia’s winter 2010 effort as the games head to the Black Sea resort of Sochi in four years is only part of the story irking Russian bigwigs back home. The collapse of the Soviet Union spawned a decade of woes for the Russian Federation that had to pick up the pieces of an economy in shambles, and to manage internal political instability and the spinoff of the 15-republic empire into independent states. In the last decade, partly on the shoulders of rising global energy prices – Russia’s economy is heavily dependent on oil and gas exports – leaders at the Kremlin tried to show that Russia was back! President Vladimir Putin, a youngish looking former KGB officer, stepped forward to announce a more assertive Russia on the world stage, threatening Western Europe with energy embargoes and rattling sabers against America over renewed deployments of military forces nearer to our shores. While Putin’s Russia worked to put the economy back in place and place the country more solidly on the world stage the Olympic sports machine had yet to recover from the end of the Soviet Union which held the totalitarian pursuit of sport excellence as among its national priorities. So as fierce Russian national pride is ascending the failure of its athletes at the pinnacle of global competition is especially maddening in Moscow.

The Olympics, after all, is about more than sports. It is an international competition of games that closely shadows the ongoing competition for leadership in the world – the games that are not very sporting. Do you remember the importance China attached to hosting the summer games in Beijing two years ago? The investment in creating a staggering display for the world was a signal that China was a key player. Likewise for Russia, the Sochi games will showcase the country’s global position in the post-Soviet era.

You only have to recall the 1980 U.S. men’s Olympic hockey team’s victory over the heavily favored Soviet skaters – a collection of pro-level players poised to snuff out the plucky underdog kids from American college campuses – to get a sense of the real-world rivalries that transcended the sports venues. “Miracle,” the movie dramatization of the American triumph should be required viewing for any student of the U.S.-Soviet Cold War competition. The Olympics are the pinnacle of sports in the world but it’s about more in the world than sports.

The Russians will close out their 2010 effort and deal with the howling wolves back home, as they turn their eyes to Sochi in 2014. As for American Olympic watchers the games have been great so far. And if we need an international bogeyman to rally against this year, there’s always the Canadian hockey team for the plucky Americans – even if they are also NHL stars – to take down. They drop the puck today for the round one with our northern nemesis.

Pat Ryan is a retired sailor and writer. He lives in Cookeville, Tennessee.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: