The fourth Olympics for Russia during the era of the Putin dictatorship has just concluded. Russia finished with one -quarter fewer gold medals and ten percent fewer total medals in London, UK than it had when the era began, in Sydney, Australia. More importantly, it suffered spectacular loss after humiliating defeat across a wide range of marquee events.
Let’s start with the good news: Russia nearly hit the gold-medal target that the national Olympic organizers had set for themselves, an improvement of two gold medals over what Russia achieved in Beijing China four years ago. It got to 24, shooting for 25, up from 23 four years ago. On this, Russia should be congratulated. But it was still Russia’s worst overall performance at the summer games since 1952, and the way Russia achieved its meager goal was certainly not pretty. It was clear that Russia remains far, far behind the level of achievement it had when Putin took power, and that’s not what Putin promised, he promised significant improvement. At most, after more than a decade in power, Putin has merely managed to stop the bleeding. It’s clear that in sports as in economics, Russia might well have been far better off if Putin had never taken power.
The list of Russia’s Olympic failures is ghastly to behold, particularly its losses, and its overall comparison, to its hated rival the USA. In perhaps the most shocking development, the USA whipped Russia in the women’s pole vault event, taking gold to Russia’s meager bronze; Russia’s Elena Isinbaeva had been a legend in this event. Russia was crushed in gymnastics by the USA and saw its Larissa Latynina dethroned by American Michael Phelps as the winningest athlete in the history of the games. Phelps also led all athletes at these games with six total medals, four gold. He’s a superstar, just one of many on the USA side (though undoubtedly the brightest), something Russian can only imagine having on its side. Russia’s biggest name, its flag-bearer Maria Sharapova, made it to the gold medal women’s singles tennis match against American Serena Williams and then promptly disgraced her country, losing the first nine games of the match and ultimately winning only one. It was truly painful to watch, and emblematic of what happened to Russia almost every time it faced serious competition in a marquee event. Just four Russian athletes ranked in the top fifty individual medal winners. The USA had almost twice that number ranked in the top 10 alone.
Russia had the chance to reach a gold-medal faceoff with the USA in both men’s and women’s basketball, but it did not capitalize on either opportunity, getting relegated to the bronze-medal round in both cases. Despite bringing in an American ringer for its women’s basketball team in the hopes of avoiding this outcome, the Russian side still had to endure a humiliating loss to France, denied even a lowly bronze (the men did manage to squeak past Argentina to take this consolation prize).
The inescapable conclusion was that Russia cannot compete with the United States on the athletic field. The USA had 36 gold medals four years ago in Beijing, and this total soared to nearly 50 in London, far and away more than any other nation. Russia can only gape in awe at an achievement of that kind, its gold medal count was essentially static and less than half that of the USA, which had nearly as many gold medals as Russia had gold and silver combined. And even more devastating, the medals the USA won were in the most significant kinds of events the games had to offer, the contrast with Russia being stark and dramatic.
Indeed, the only real “glory” that Russia could boast of was a stunning come-from-behind gold-medal win over Brazil in men’s volleyball and a stirring win over the USA in women’s 400-meter hurdles (Russia also swept the men’s and women’s high jump and took gold in the women’s 800 meters). After that, Russia was left with “wins” in laughable pseudo “sports” like synchronized swimming and race-walking and rhythmic gymnastics, while the USA was dominating the classic glamour events in the swimming pool, in the gym and on the track. And for a final indignity to “Russia” proper, a huge number of the few gold medals the country did manage win were won by athletes from places like Dagestan, Armenia and Ossetia, places that are hardly part of the “real” Russia as Slavic Russians see it and many of whose denizens are struggling to throw off Russian rule.
What was worse, though, was what happened off the playing field.
One after another, Russian coaches in disgrace resigned or promised to, and the Russia press circled like vultures while the western press gaped in horror. But Russia’s biggest failure is yet to come: Despite all this hand-wringing, Russia will no more face up to and correct its athletic failures than it will its political ones. Russians have spent too much time practicing neo-Soviet denial. They have lost the ability to admit their faults and undertake real reform, so things can only get worse for them.
And then there was the politics.
While the games were underway Russia experienced yet another utterly humiliating failure in its space program, and the world gaped in slack-jawed horror as a beautiful young mother was persecuted and tortured for her role as leader of the Pussy Riot collective. It was as if events had been laid out in advance to humiliate Russia before the eyes of the world.
One can only hope that two years from now in Sochi Russia will come under even more intense political pressure as the world’s microscope is turned on the Putin dictatorship. Hopefully, the world will remember how the Putin regime tortured and tormented Pussy Riot, causing everyone from Madonna to Bjork to Yoko Ono to issue stinging condemnations of Russian barbarism, and will unearth many other horrifying atrocities occurring in Russia on a daily basis. If that happens, the Putin regime will get the shock of its life, and horrifying cost Russia is paying to host the games may well be worthwhile after all.