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Russia have reality check before Sochi Winter Olympics

Dreams of dominating at home Games dealt a blow with poor results at world championships

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 31 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 31 March, 2013, 4:56am

Any dreams Russia had of dominating their home Winter Olympic Games in Sochi next year have been dealt a harsh reality check by the mediocre performances of the country's athletes this season.

With most major winter competitions over for the year, Russia risk finishing fifth in the Olympics medals table if their performances at this year's world championships are repeated at Sochi next year.

Their failure to win any world titles gold in biathlon - a hugely popular televised sport in Russia - has caused particular concern.

Russia took only one gold at the World Figure Skating Championships - in the pairs discipline - the latest sign that their era of total dominance of the sport has ended.

According to a tally by leading sports daily Sovetsky Sport, Norway are undisputed leaders of this winter season with 17 world championship golds, while the United States are second with 11.

Germany collected nine and Russia and Canada seven each, with ice hockey and men's curling still to come. Russian athletes' results this winter have forced the country's sports minister, Vitaly Mutko, to take a much more cautious view of the prospects for Sochi.

Mutko had declared on March 12 that the "only estimated and expected result" for the Russian team at next year's Olympics was top place in the medals table.

However, just two weeks later, on March 23, he implied that Russia could at best hope for third overall.

"The potential level of our team is fourth or fifth place. Third place would be an outstanding result for us. This is an objective estimate," he said.

Russia won just three gold medals at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver and a repeat of that in Sochi would be a disaster for President Vladimir Putin, as he seeks to flaunt the country's power. It has not all been bad news for Russia in the 2012-13 season, though, with some encouraging performances despite ferocious competition. Cross-country skier Alexander Legkov won the prestigious multiple-stage Tour de Ski race and finished runner-up in the overall World Cup standings, while Russia's ski sprinters won two gold medals at the world championships.

The speed skaters were also successful as Denis Yuskov and Olga Fatkulina, both won world championship 1,500m gold. These were Russia's first world gold medals since 1996.

Veteran Alexander Zubkov - coached by Canadian legend Pierre Lueders - is still Russia's main Olympic hope in bobsleigh as his crew won four World Cup stages this season.

In skeleton, Russia won their first world championship gold through Alexander Tretiakov, while in figure skating, Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov finally overcame the German skating duo Alena Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy's perennial domination in the discipline by winning world championship gold.

Russia also have chances in snowboarding as Yekaterina Tudegesheva confirmed her class by winning gold at this year's world championships. Former American Vic Wild, now a naturalised Russian citizen, also won bronze.

The short-track team enjoyed their best season as newcomer Viktor Ahn, three-time Olympic champion for South Korea, won World Cup stages.

Their traditionally strong sports are vital for Russia in Sochi given they have almost no hope in alpine disciplines or ski jumping.

The biathlon squads, who won seven races and 28 medals overall at the World Cup stages this season, also experienced major failure at the worlds, with one silver and one bronze medal courtesy of Anton Shipulin, the lone Russian biathlete to show any semblance of form.

"The result that will suit me in Sochi is two golds. If this does not happen, then I will resign," Mikhail Prokhorov, the billionaire businessman who heads the Russian biathlon union (and who owns the Brooklyn Nets NBA team), was quoted as saying by Sovetsky Sport.

Agence France-Presse



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