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Friday, 16 August, 2002, 00:26 GMT 01:26 UK
Putin muscles in on Russian sport
Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze of Russia and Jamie Sale and David Pelletier of Canada with gold medals following the Salt Lake City judging scandal
The Salt Lake City judging scandal rocked Russia

In a sign of how passionately President Vladimir Putin feels about fitness in Russia, he has appointed himself chairman of a new committee to oversee the development of sport nationwide.

It is an issue close to the heart of the president, himself an enthusiastic sportsman with a fondness for skiing and martial arts.

The move comes amid a continuing epidemic of ill-health in Russia and concerns that the country has lost much of its former sporting prowess.

Mr Putin's deputy is a former star of Soviet ice hockey who helped the nation's team win two Olympic titles and six world championships in the 1980s.

Judging allegations

For post-Soviet Russia, that sort of sporting success has faded into memory.

Vladimir Putin
President Putin is enthusiastic - the Russian media are sceptical

Russia's performance at the last winter Olympics in Salt Lake City was disappointing and marred by accusations of biased judging.

French and Russian judges were alleged to have colluded to secure gold medals in separate figure skating competitions.

The teams of Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze of Russia and of Jamie Sale and David Pelletier of Canada both received gold in the pairs' competition after a French judge admitted marking up the Russians.

Now, the poor Olympics showing, and the nation's health problems, appear to have galvanised the Russian leadership into action.

Huge task

Over recent months, there have been proposals for a massive state construction programme to build new sports facilities.

Anna Kournikova
Anna Kournikova: the glamorous side of Russian sport and fitness

It is all a powerful advertisement for physical fitness in a country plagued by preventable illness and premature deaths.

But the task is huge, with one of the main priorities stopping the best athletes and trainers from going abroad.

There's no doubting President Putin's enthusiasm, but much of the Russian media is sceptical.

After all, in Soviet times, sport was not only about physical fitness and national pride - it was also one of the tools the Communist regime used to try to prove the superiority of its political system.

Some Russians retain not always fond memories of the compulsory exercise of those days - and have met Mr Putin's declarations of a sporting revival with bemused resignation.

See also:

13 Feb 02 | Europe
15 Apr 02 | Europe
16 Jan 01 | Europe
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