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Vancouver Is An Olympic Wipeout For Russians
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Vancouver Is An Olympic Wipeout For Russians
Vancouver Is An Olympic Wipeout For Russians
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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

For years, the Winter Olympics were the Soviet Union's stage. Between 1956 and 1988, the Soviets won the most medals at seven out of nine Winter Games.

Even after the Soviet Union collapsed, Russians expected success from their athletes, especially in sports like figure skating and hockey, which explains the disappointment and shock in Moscow right now. NPR's David Greene has the story.

DAVID GREENE: As these Vancouver Olympic Games began, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev sounded worried. People were boasting about Russia raking in medals. Some students asked Medvedev how big the pile would be.

Unidentified Male #1: (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: Not only did the president avoid throwing out a number, he stressed that Russia is in a period of transition when it has to upgrade sports facilities and train the next generation of athletes. As for Vancouver, he was optimistic.

President DMITRY MEDVEDEV (Russia): (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: Let's just keep our fingers crossed, he said. Another public official lowering expectations? If so, Medvedev didn't lower them enough.

With two days left in Vancouver, Russia has a mere three gold medals and is well behind the first-place Americans in the overall medal tally. Yet there was still hope this week.

(Soundbite of hockey game)

Unidentified Male #2: (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: Wednesday night was a battle of the mighty: Russia's star-studded hockey team against Canada.

(Soundbite of hockey game)

Unidentified Male #2: (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: It wasn't even close. Canada won seven-three, leading these Russian TV commentators to declare this has to be some kind of nightmare.

Unidentified Male #2: (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: Natalia Dmitriyeva hasn't had a good night's sleep since that game. I found her looking weary at a kiosk near the Kremlin today, selling Russian Olympic team clothing, which turns out people are still buying.

Ms. NATALIA DMITRIYEVA: (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: Dmitriyeva could still recount each painful goal. This is how committed hockey fans are in Russia. That game started at 3:30 a.m. Moscow time.

Ms. DMITRIYEVA: (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: I was home, she said, me, hockey and a bottle of vodka. My husband was asleep. And that game, she said, it was offensive. Russia's athletes, she said, figured they were going to Vancouver to clean up, and that has them in a pretty bad situation now.

But this woman is not giving up. Those years of Soviet glory, she told me, were thanks to rigorous training of athletes at a very young age. She said her government knows they have to get back to that policy.

(Soundbite of music)

GREENE: For cab driver Gennady Nikonov, car music cures his Olympic woes.

Mr. GENNADY NIKONOV (Cab Driver): (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: What can I do, he said? Life is life, although he added life will be better if Russia can get its act together by 2014, when the country is hosting the winter games in the city of Sochi, a perfect time for Russian redemption but also the risk of overconfidence with the games on Russian soil. Nikonov said cockiness was a problem this year.

Mr. NIKONOV: (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: There were commentators on TV saying if the U.S. beat Canada in hockey, surely Russia could. After hearing that, he said, I knew we'd lose.

As for what exactly happened in that big hockey game, Russia's coach, Vyacheslav Bykov, snapped at a reporter for asking. What do you want me to do, he asked, put up a guillotine in Red Square and finish off my players?

You get the feeling people here are ready for Vancouver to end so they can start looking forward to the Russian Winter Olympics of 2014. David Greene, NPR News, Moscow.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: This is NPR News.

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