VERY INFORMATIVE LITTLE STORY ON THE RUSSIAN SPORTS SYSTEM AS IT OPERATES IN THE POST-USSR ERA, PUBLISHED IN THE TIMES OF LONDON, kk
June 17, 2005
Russia set their sights on world domination for ever
By David Powell, Athletics Correspondent
Our correspondent visits Volgograd to try to discover secret of dominance by women’s team
THEY are the most powerful unit in world athletics and, even without their three Olympic champions this weekend, the Russia women’s team are forecast to win a ninth successive European Cup by the kind of runaway distance that Asafa Powell had over the field when setting his 100 metres world record on Tuesday night. The days of the old Soviet Union may be long gone, but the system still works a treat.
In the Olympic Games in Athens last year, Russia’s women won more than twice as many medals as the United States, the next most successful nation, including five golds. At the most recent international event, the European Indoor Championships in Madrid in March, they won six golds, three times as many as Sweden, the only other country to win more than one.
In Volgograd, the city that gave Russia its three women champions in Athens, Nelli Blinova, a high-ranking coach, holds court at the indoor track. “For ever,” she says. “We want to be first for ever.” For ever may be pushing it, but the foreseeable future is coloured Russian red. In the World Junior Championships last season, Russia took seven gold, eight silver and three bronze medals. Britain’s score? 0-0-0.
While UK Athletics has been backed generously by lottery funding for almost ten years but has little potential to show for it, Russia is holding to a proven formula. Backed by the state, the sports schools, with their talent identification methods and profusion of trained coaches, still produce athletes on a scale other nations in Europe can only envy.
Moscow is less productive than it was, but Volgograd — where life remains rich in endeavour but poorly served for modern forms of entertainment — still has sport at the heart of its culture. Yelena Isinbayeva, in the pole vault, Yelena Slesarenko, in the high jump, and Tatyana Lebedeva, in the long jump, brought Olympic gold back from Athens to the city once known as Stalingrad.
Isinbayeva would have gone to waste under the British system. When Alexander Lisovoy, the sports school coach who trained her in gymnastics from five to 15, concluded that she had grown too tall, he passed her within the system to an athletics coach rather than write her off, believing that her agility could be transferred to the pole vault.
At the sports school where Slesarenko’s talents were developed, Natalya Sawostsnaya, the director, took a group of journalists on a tour. Like Isinbayeva’s former school, it had a clinical look about it, a place where every practical need had been considered but hardly a rouble had been spent on luxury. In one classroom, high jump lessons were being given using two posts with a rope. In another, boy wrestlers were being put through drills. “Please continue in the tradition of the Volgograd Olympic winners,” the message on a diploma signed by Slesarenko for a school competition winner read.
According to Victor Ivanov, the head of the Volgograd Sport Committee, there are 38 sports schools in the region, for children aged six to 16, and half have departments for athletics. “From the age of 16, the most gifted children go to special schools called Schools of Olympic Reserves,” Ivanov said. “They combine general education and sports training.”
Besides these, there are two Mastership Schools in Volgograd, where they train only in sport from the age of 19. There is also an academy that prepares teachers and coaches for the sports schools. The coaches are paid some 17,500 roubles (about £335) a month in a city where the average pay is 5,000 roubles. “We instruct them all to work in the same way, in the same tradition, so they do not use their own methods,” Ivanov said.
Coaches not skilled enough to take athletes beyond a certain level must pass them on. In Britain, some athletes outgrow their coaches, staying with them too long. “The coaches who worked during Soviet times share their experience with younger coaches and pass on traditions,” Nikolai Karatayev, a Volgograd coach, said. According to Blinova, the number of young people engaged in track and field is rising. Our group in Volgograd included two former Soviet athletes, Aleksandr Porkhomovskiy, a 10.12sec 100 metres runner, and Yolanda Chen, a former triple jump world record-holder. They are not so sure of the future.
Porkhomovskiy said that lifestyle changes in Russia threaten not only the interest of young athletes but also the coaching input. “Under the old system, all the coaches were fanatics,” he said. “They still like the sport but they want money now.” Chen said that young Russians who once saw athletics as a means to a good life are less patient today. “People have other opportunities. In the Soviet time, there were not so many,” Chen said.
Yet the women still come to athletics in numbers, which is why Russia can afford to give Isinbayeva, Slesarenko and Lebedeva this weekend off, bring in youngsters and still expect to win the European Cup in Florence. Russia’s men, by contrast, have not won the trophy since 1993. The difference, according to Chen, is that “for women, athletics is one of the top sports, for men it is tenth maybe”. Porkhomovskiy agreed. “For Russian men there is much more money in other sports like football, hockey and basketball,” he said.