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Major Tune up for Sports Machine

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jul.31.2008

The Podolsk Olympic training center located outside Moscow was built more than a half century ago to develop the athletes who would transform the Soviet Union into an athletic superpower.

Today, the red rubber track is well-worn and the paint peeling. The newest structure, a dormitory, was built in 1986, and the medical center is housed in the crumbling former country home of a czarist-era baker.

The Russian athletes heading to the Beijing Olympics in a couple of weeks may be the last to train among the cracked facades of Soviet-era complexes like Podolsk. Hundreds of sleek athletic facilities are springing up everywhere, it seems, heralding an athletics boom in a country hungry for sporting prestige and wallowing in cash.

Fears of losing Olympic ascendancy have impelled Russia to spend the last several years pumping billions of dollars from its oil-soaked coffers into rebuilding an athletics infrastructure left to rot when the Soviet Union crumbled. The investment has already shown impressive results, with Russians attaining international success in arenas beyond the Olympics.
Last September, the national basketball team won the European championship for the first time since the Soviet Union fell in 1991. In May, the national hockey team beat Canada for its first world championship in 15 years and St. Petersburg?s Zenit soccer club won the UEFA Cup championship. Last month, the national soccer team created a frenzy by advancing to the semifinals at the European championship. In the world tennis rankings, 5 of the top 10 women are Russian.

At the Beijing Olympics, Russia is expected to contend for supremacy at the top of the medal table ? as usual.

Vyacheslav A. Fetisov, the former National Hockey League star, is the head of Rossport, the government agency charged with overseeing Russia?s athletic development. He said his budget for building up the country?s athletic infrastructure had soared from a couple hundred thousand dollars when his agency was created in 2002 to $1 billion today.

The government plans to build 4,000 new athletic facilities in the coming years, including pools, gymnastics halls, and stadiums for soccer and hockey, Fetisov said. About 300 facilities were built last year, and another 400 are scheduled for completion this year.

Athletes and coaches who once preferred to train abroad, Fetisov said, have begun to come back to Russia.

Today we can give our athletes the opportunity to train in the best facilities, he said. We have the means for this.

As heir to the Soviet Union?s legacy of Olympic domination, Russia maintained a steadfast foothold on the Olympic summit through the Soviet collapse and the subsequent economic and social chaos. Until the Athens Games in 2004, it had finished first or second in the gold medal count in the Summer Games, although it faltered somewhat in the Winter Olympics.

Meanwhile, the country was largely stripped of the Soviet Union?s athletic infrastructure, which was partly located in the independent states born of the Union?s demise. Poor investment led to a steady erosion of remaining facilities, a loss of coaches and a decline in the quality of training.

Since becoming president in 2000, Vladimir V. Putin, now Russia's prime minister, has worked to parlay wealth generated by the country?s huge energy resources into a resurgence of national pride. An avid sportsman with a black belt in judo and a penchant for downhill skiing, Putin has made revitalizing Russian athletics an element of this strategy.

The government has allocated huge support to the Olympic movement, Olympic athletes and athletics,? Vitaly Mutko, Russia?s sports minister, said in a hearing before Parliament last month. ?New facilities are being built and training centers for athletes are being reconstructed.

The country's budget for building new Olympic training centers jumped to an equivalent of about $35 million in 2006 from about $90,000 in 2002, and financing for Olympic-related sporting events grew by 60 percent from 2004 to 2007, according to Rossport.

The government has also deployed Russia?s cadre of Kremlin-friendly billionaires to help in the effort.

The country?s 10 richest businessmen, in addition to aiding other athletic projects, have donated about $12 million to the Fund for the Support of Olympians, which will give cash awards to medal winners in Beijing, said Aleksandr Katushev, the fund?s manager.

While there seems to be plenty of money available, it may still take years for the country to regain what it lost.

Everything is going slowly and gradually,? said Aleksandr Vysotsky, deputy general director of the Podolsk facility.

Of course we would like the conditions to be better?a new dormitory, maybe more gymnasiums, he said. He said he was confident that by the next Olympics an overhaul of the training center would be under way.

"Moving forward is necessary and possible," he said.

Some have criticized the government for devoting too much attention to building multimillion dollar stadiums and arenas even in the most far-flung regions of the country, while neglecting Russia's existing, though decaying, training facilities.

Very few training centers are being built, said Gennady V. Shvets, head of the Russian Olympic Committee's press department. ?Everyone for some reason is building these large, complicated, architecturally beautiful complexes that take a large amount of money. These have little utility for athletes.

Russia must also face a new athletic rival: China.

China sent Russia to third place in the gold medal count in Athens, its lowest ranking in a Summer Olympics since the Soviet Union first appeared at the Games in Helsinki in 1952. Many Russian sports watchers say their country will have difficulty surpassing either China or the United States, its traditional Olympic foe, in Beijing this year.

Yet, given Russia?s wealth and the huge political will behind athletic improvement, crumbling infrastructure and the slight dip in the country's Olympic fortunes may signal less a decline than a small stumble from which Russian officials seem keen to quickly recover.

It was largely on the basis of Russia's riches and some convincing promises by Putin, the No. 1 sports promoter here, that the International Olympic Committee selected Sochi, a Russian Black Sea resort town, to host the 2014 Winter Olympics.

Once home to an Olympic training center, Sochi today has almost no facilities fit for major international competition, let alone the Olympics. In the six years before the Games, Russia must build almost everything, including roads and power lines, largely from scratch at a cost that will probably exceed that of any previous Olympic Games.

Meanwhile, the country's sports fans are savoring the recent triumphs in basketball, hockey and soccer in international competition. The victories have induced patriotic euphoria among Russian fans not seen for nearly a decade and a half thanks to lackadaisical performance by underfunded teams.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Western culture was pressed upon people along with dislike for their country, said Olga Chernogorova, a 26-year-old athlete training at the Podolsk facility, who will represent Russia in the discus competition in Beijing.
Now, patriotism has been reborn.


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