Page last updated at 15:53 GMT, Sunday, 11 April 2010 16:53 UK

Ice skating funding melts away in Russia

By Rafael Saakov and Anastasia Uspenskaya
BBC Russian Service

Yevgeny Plushenko
Much money was invested in Olympic challenger Yevgeny Plushenko

It is just four years until Russia hosts the Winter Olympics in Sochi, but already questions are being asked about funding issues.

At the same time a golden era of Russian figure skating may be coming to an end, after 60 years of the nation's competitors enjoying domination in the world's ice arenas.

At the recent games in Vancouver - for the first time since 1992 - Russia failed to take the gold in the men's discipline; in the ice-dance the Russian couples also failed to win gold; and for the first time since 1964 no Russian pairs made it even to the podium.

And today's sporting and financial problems are being put down by some to the economic upheaval that followed the demise of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.

The former head of Russia's Skating Federation, Valentin Piseev, who was forced to stand down after the Vancouver failure, says the lack of medals should not have been a surprise.

"The majority of skaters who performed in the Olympics started their careers in the 1990s, when the country was trapped in very difficult economic and social conditions," he says.

"Sport was the last thing people could think about, junior sport schools were closing down, but the biggest setback for us was the departure of our best coaches abroad.

"Our highly qualified coaches were the main power of Soviet figure skating. But the reality was that our coaches were paid per month the same as a specialist in the US was paid just for one session."

'Many problems'

But despite Mr Piseev's opinion that the three medals won in Canada were as much as Russia could have expected, others disagree.

The 2006 Olympic skating champion, Yevgeny Plushchenko, and others want more to be spent on training and financial support for Russia's figure skaters.

He says that demands for Russia to win gold in four ice skating disciplines in Sochi will need a lot of planning.

"My question is… how exactly are we going to do that?" he says.

"Young boys and girls - those who are going to perform in Sochi in 2014 - come to me with these questions: 'Will we get any money at all for Olympic training, when, and how much?'

"There is nothing for them at the moment. They wake up in the morning asking themselves what they are going to eat. Some may say this is not true. But... it is true. There are so many problems."

Overall during the last year Russia's figure skating federation spent more than 140 million roubles ($4.8m; £3.1m) ahead of the recent games. But is it still enough?

Expensive pastime

Recent European Championship bronze medallist Maria Mukhortova says a training overhaul is needed and in recent times "we didn't even get the appropriate sum of money for Olympic preparations which our coach was hoping for".

Responding to funding shortfall allegations, Mr Piseev has revealed figures that show the cost of pre-Winter Olympic training for Yevgeny Plushchenko - the main gold-medal hope of the Russian team - was more than six million roubles.

Russia"s Maria Mukhortova and Maxim Trankov
Russia's Maria Mukhortova comes from a poor background

But Plushchenko is a world-famous star. What about the others?

Maria Mukhortova remembers what she had to go through before joining the top rank of Russian ice skating, coming from a small town at the age 13.

"I come from a quite poor family," she says.

"We faced so many problems - we had no money, no food. My coach helped us a lot. He gave us some money so that I, my mother and grandmother could survive. We lived in a single room, just 16 metres in size".

Many say that the root cause of Russia's failure at the Vancouver Olympics lies at the junior level of the sport, with Russian figure skating schools too expensive for most people.

'Invest in junior sport'

One exception is the school of the first ever Russian World Champion in women's single figure skating, Maria Butyrskaya. Her school is sponsored by the Moscow Department of Sport.

"Ice is essential but expensive," she says.

"One hour's rental of an ice rink costs up to 12,000 roubles - in order to train well our school needs at least six hours a day.

"If it wasn't for the sport authorities, parents would literally have to buy ice for their children. We can't even provide kids with the costumes for performances - parents take it upon themselves.

Maria Butyrskaya
Maria Butyrskaya says 'ice is expensive'

"If we invest in junior sport, if we pay more attention to it, we will no doubt once again have Olympic champions."

Meanwhile, there is a feeling among many skaters that too much financial support is targeted towards football and ice hockey, leaving it hard for ice skating to compete when it comes to things like attracting sponsors.

For the amateur sport, there is another problem. With competitive coaching salaries still relatively small, many successful former Russian figure skaters find themselves drawn to showbusiness.

Glamorous TV ice-shows are enormously successful in Russia.

"Figure skating is a very good business now," says Iliya Averbukh, the director of one of the top ice-shows on Russian TV, and a former Olympic silver medallist.

"We're touring 54 cities and all the performances are sold out. Unfortunately, most people prefer to watch figure skating stars in TV shows rather than competing in championships."

TV sponsorship

It's a paradox, but in a country where sport has a huge patriotic following, sponsors are not in a hurry to spend money on future champions.

They sponsor figure skating shows on TV, but are less interested in those who would compete for Russia during the next Winter Olympic games in the Russian city of Sochi.

"We have a pool of 20 companies who sponsor our TV shows," says Averbukh.

"They're keen to push cosmetic brands, goods for women, drinks, sportswear."

Those sponsors pay anything between $200,000 and $1m.

So there are many challenges facing the next head of Russia's figure skating federation.

But who should it be? A former skater who knows the sport inside-out? Or a businessman, who will be able to invest real money in a sport which for many decades was the pride of a big nation?

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