There is no motivator like a crisis. It works in business, when the threat of bankruptcy tends to focus the employee’s mind. And it works in sports, when athletes come home with their shoulders slumped, necks unadorned with medals.
For Russia, the crisis came at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. The Big Red Machine won just three gold medals – its worst performance ever – and was almost upstaged by the Australians. The 2008 Beijing Games had not been much better. Russia placed a distant third to China and the United States and was almost overtaken by Britain.
“You go into the Games not to sweat, but to win,” Russian prime minister (now president) Vladimir Putin, finger raised, told Russia’s hapless sports bosses after the Vancouver debacle.
Most of them were ousted from the corrupt, unambitious system that took promising athletes and transformed them into losers. Mr. Putin’s nightmare was a repeat of Vancouver at the $50-billion (U.S.) 2014 Sochi Winter Games, which started Thursday.
The Russians will settle for nothing less than gold – and lots of it – whatever the cost.
In recent Games, the definition of success for an Olympic host country has taken on a new dimension. Not only must they run efficiently, safely and please global audiences, they must also produce a surge in medals, as Canada did in Vancouver. Even if they run flawlessly, the Sochi Games will be judged a failure unless Russian athletes dominate the hardware count, as they did back in the Soviet Union era.
The Canadians are helping the Russians. Canada’s Own The Podium (OTP) program, launched in 2003 to ensure that Canadian Olympic athletes would not keep humiliating themselves and their country, worked to stunning success in Vancouver and has steered the design of podium programs around the world.
Two of the architects of OTP, Cathy Priestner Allinger, the speed skater from Windsor, Ont., who won silver in the 1976 Olympics, and husband Todd Allinger are working with the Russian Olympic Committee to give Russian athletes a competitive edge. “The success of Vancouver was very dependent on the success of the Canadian team,” says Anne Merklinger, the retired curler who became OTP’s chief executive in 2012. “Russia is taking the same approach. They will be successful in Sochi. They have acquired great coaches and spared nothing to prepare for the Games.”
Mr. Allinger agrees. “It’s the gold medals that they really care about,” he says. “Their goal is to win 14 golds, the same as Canada won in Vancouver.”
New Zealand is another country that was impressed by OTP, so impressed that it hired its former CEO, Alex Baumann, Canada’s two-time swimming gold medalist, in 2012 to run High Performance Sport New Zealand. Its principles are the same as OTP’s: Design programs to make the best athletes even better and pretty much forget about the rest. “You have a sole focus, which is high performance,” Mr. Baumann says. “It’s not an egalitarian approach.”
Host countries did not always have a podium obsession. Canada obviously did not. In the 1976 Montreal Games and the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics, Canadian athletes failed to produced a single gold. That was not fun, but it was not the end of the world. What hurt Montreal’s image more than the underperforming home team was the construction scandals, such as the unfinished Olympic stadium.
A lot has changed in the last couple of decades. The Olympics lost their Corinthian values and became global mass-market exercises that politicians, spokespeople and corporations exploited relentlessly to deliver a positive image to hundreds of millions, sometimes billions, of viewers and readers around the world. That image required winners. “Look at Jamaica,” says Stratos Safioleas, a Greek communications consultant who is advising Pyeongchang, South Korea, on its 2018 Winter Olympic plans. “I wouldn’t know anything about them if I didn’t know they had the best runners in the world, like Usain Bolt. You feel that Jamaica is a cool country.”
Winning athletes would also produce pleasant domestic side effects, such as the development of a new industry – coaching, training, sports medicine and technology and the construction of the infrastructure to watch the results unfold. “It would allow young kids to see athletes as role models so they would get engaged in sport instead of just sitting in the front of the computer,” Mr. Safioleas says.
In search of medals, host countries began to pour fortunes into athlete development and it more or less worked. In the Sydney Games in 2000, Australia nailed 58 medals, 16 of them gold. In the previous Olympics, the Aussie gold tally was nine. In Athens in 2004, tiny Greece nailed six gold medals – double the Canadian count. Greece’s gold tally in the 2008 and 2012 Summer Games went to zero.
China beat the United States in the medal race in Beijing in 2008 and Britain beat everyone but the United States and China in London four years later. In the Winter Games, the Canadians took 14 golds in Vancouver and 26 over all. Italy was the exception to the home-country rule. In the 2006 Turin Winter Games, it slouched to a 10th-place finish, with only 11 medals over all, a mere five of them gold. Even though the Games were a success, Italy does not look back at Turin as a glorious sporting moment.
There is no doubt the Russians, haunted by their Vancouver flop, are pouring fortunes into their Sochi-bound athletes. But precise figures are elusive. There is no OTP-like transparency and detail. OTP publishes everything. In the four years leading up to the Sochi Games, the Canadian winter athletes received $90.5-million (Canadian), up from $79.8-million in the lead-up to the Vancouver Olympics (the biggest single amount, $10.3-million, went to the freestyle skiers). The high figure for Sochi is somewhat misleading because the Sochi team, with 221 athletes, is 10 per cent bigger than the Vancouver team. Still, the hefty spending suggests the Canadians are serious when they insist their goal is “to contend for the top spot in overall medals won” in Sochi.
They are bound to face formidable competition from the Russians. “I would have thought the Russians will be spending a lot more than the Canadians did in Vancouver,” says Duncan Mackay, editor of the British website Inside the Games. “They don’t have consolidated info. Some programs are left to the oligarchs.”
Still, there are some spending clues. A 2010 report carried by Russia’s Itar-Tass news agency said Russia spent $110-million (U.S.) preparing for the Vancouver Olympics. A year later, a single deal signed by Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) with state-controlled Gazprom, the world’s largest natural gas company, brought in $130-million for Russia’s Sochi podium effort. At about the same time, the ROC signed a reported $5-million contract with Allinger Consulting International, to work on the podium program.
Since then, there has been a flurry of reports about oligarchs deploying their fortunes to overhaul individual teams. Mikhail Prokhorov, the sports-mad owner of the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets, is sponsoring the once formidable Russian biathlon team. Andrei Bokarev, who made his billions in coal, emerged as president of the Russian freestyle skiing federation. It’s not known how many millions they have contributed to their causes, but it appears ROC is benefiting from an open-cheque policy.
“Participating in Sochi is a kind of tax for the oligarchs,” former Russian prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov told Germany’s Der Spiegel last month. “If you want to continue doing business in Russia, then you have to help Putin.”
The Russians have recruited top international coaching talent, no doubt at a hefty price. One was Edmonton-born gold medalist bobsledder Pierre Lueders who became head coach of the Bobsleigh Federation of Russia. Wolfgang Staudinger, head coach of the Canadian luge team, says the Russian athletic budgets for Sochi are off the charts. “They have funds that are not normal, beyond comprehension,” he says. “They pump in the money and they have so many athletes it’s unbelievable … They’re just super, super strong.”
Canada’s OTP was built on the principle that money translates into medals. Ms. Merklinger compares OTP to a “finishing school” for the best athletes. Russia has clearly adopted the OTP idea, at least in outline, and torqued it up. The battle of the bucks has started and Mr. Putin is in no mood to see the money he squeezed out of his friends badly spent.
With a report from Allan Maki in Calgary
Follow me on Twitter: @ereguly