The Winter Olympics in Retrospect
It would be fair to say that Russia reacted badly to its showing on the medals table in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Before the athletes left for the Games, one commentator declared that any finish lower than fourth would be a ‘disgrace’. So finishing sixth on the overall count was presumably disgraceful. But why?
Admittedly Russia was a long way behind fourth-placed Norway, which won 23 medals as opposed to Russia’s 15. Moreover, if you measure the placing by gold medal rather than total medal counts, as Olympic organisers do, Russia came eleventh, behind both the Netherlands and Korea.
That is not the standard which people have come to expect over the years since 1952 when the Soviet Union came out of sporting isolation and competed in the Helsinki summer Games. In all the summer and winter Olympics since then in which the Soviet Union competed, it came either first or second in the medals total, and more often first than second.
Since 1991, Russia has not done at all badly, for example coming third in the Beijing Olympics by both gold and total medal counts. It was beaten only by the United States and China, countries which have populations that are, respectively, twice and nine times the size of Russia’s. On a per capita medals basis, Russia was ahead of both of them, only being beaten by Australia and Great Britain. Until Vancouver, Russia has had nothing to be ashamed of. Why should one lapse be seen as a national ‘disgrace’?
Many ordinary sports fans would say: who cares about the Olympics anyway? It is today a highly artificial form of competition. And until Hitler politicised the Games at Berlin in 1936, few people regarded them as a symbol of national pride or competence. They were simply a festival of individual competition.
Nonetheless, the Russian state cares. It thinks Olympic success so important that it pays enormous sums of money to get results. The three Russian gold medal winners at Vancouver will each receive Euro 100,000 and a new car, which is being paid out of a total fund which, at $117 million, is five times larger than it was for the previous Winter Olympics, in Turin in 2006. Oblast authorities are said to be topping up these awards with land grants and apartments.
Norway and Sweden, both of whom won more gold medals at Vancouver than Russia, do not pay their athletes anything at all. Neither does New Zealand, North Korea and a host of other countries. India, by contrast, is said to offer $500,000 for every gold medal. Clearly there are some things money cannot buy, since India did not win a single medal—gold, silver or bronze—at Vancouver.
Why does the state care? Though Imperial Russia seemed unconcerned about the Olympics, coming 12th and 16th in the medals tables at London and Stockholm in 1908 and 1912, the Soviet Union thought that Olympic success conferred international prestige. It suggested that Soviet proletarians were fitter and stronger than people in the decadent, bourgeois West.
But this success was bought at the cost of most of the ordinary traditions of sportsmanship which were espoused by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the Frenchman who founded the modern Olympic series when he organised the Games in Athens in 1896. De Coubertin said. ‘The important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle; the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.’
De Coubertin took his ideal of amateurism from sport as he had seen it played in Victorian England, especially at Rugby School when the legendary Thomas Arnold was headmaster (on which “Tom Brown’s Schooldays” was based).
This idea was restated in America by the famous early-twentieth century sportswriter, Henry Grantland Rice, who wrote these oft-quoted lines:
‘For when the One Great Scorer comes
To write against your name,
He marks, not that you won or lost,
But how you played the Game.’
Both de Coubertin and Rice were, like Dr Arnold, representatives of a bourgeois culture that was the object of derision, hatred and, where they could get away with it, violent attack by the Bolsheviks who built the Soviet Union. Soviet sport was explicitly opposed to the ideals embodied in the gentlemanly ethic of amateurism.
The original and most explicit example of the new approach was chess, which was “Bolshevised” in the 1920s by the first Soviet Commissar of Justice, Nikolai Krylenko. His cynical ruthlessness was revealed in his approach to law. ‘Execution of the guilty is not enough,’ he once said. ‘Execution of a few innocents as well will be even more impressive to the general public.’ He carried the same attitude through to sport.
Krylenko was a mountaineer of distinction, claiming several first ascents in the Pamirs, in many cases without the use of any specialised equipment. He was also a chess fanatic. He established the Soviet approach to sport generally through his passion for the game, which he had played with Lenin while they killed time in exile before the First World War.
‘We must finish once and for all with the neutrality of chess,’ Krylenko wrote. ‘We must condemn once and for all the formula “chess for the sake of chess”. We must organise shockbrigades of chess-players, and begin the immediate realisation of a Five Year Plan for chess.’
These were not empty words. Russia had not been the preeminent force in world chess which it was later to become until Krylenko turned the game into what he called ‘a scientific weapon in the battle on the cultural front’. He established a country-wide chess development programme, starting in the schools, while at the same time infiltrating the international governing body.
The results were impressive. Before they started to come through, Russia’s record was undistinguished. From the establishment of the classical world title in 1886 until the Second World War, it produced only one of the five world champions, the émigré Alexander Alekhine (who officially represented France).
However, in the period after the War, when the players and administrators who had come through the Krylenko system had matured, eight of the nine world champions were Soviets, the only exception being Bobby Fischer. The last of these, Gary Kasparov, was followed by Vladimir Kramnik who, though representing Russia, was a product of the Soviet system.
Now that the artificial Krylenko “shock-brigade” approach is history, older patterns have reasserted themselves. Russia no longer holds the title. The current world chess champion is the Indian, Viswanathan Anand.
The ‘disgrace’ of the Vancouver Games looks slightly different when seen in this light. Arguably it was a victory for humanity in Russian sport and a defeat for self-congratulatory Soviet fanaticism.
To me there was really only one ‘disgrace’ for Russia connected with Vancouver this year, and that is the deafening silence surrounding the Winter Paralympic Games which are being held there from March 12 to 21. Russia, very sadly, has a large supply of potential competitors, all of whom are forced by nature, war or an inadequate health service to compete on de Coubertin’s terms as true Corinthians, for glory without the material rewards that their able-bodied comrades enjoy.
It is a great testament to the spirit of these people that at the Turin Winter Paralympics, in 2006, Russia came first by a long way in both the gold and total medals tables, with Ukraine second, ahead of Germany then France. The United States won 12 medals compared to Russia’s 33. But the Kremlin appeared to take little interest. Perhaps at government level the spirit of Krylenko, with its vicious, aggressive chauvinism, is not entirely dead. If so, that is the true and only ‘disgrace’ of Vancouver 2010.