Page last updated at 10:36 GMT, Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Russia searches soul over Olympic failure

Russia's bobsleigh team crash at the Winter Olympics
Russia's bobsleigh crash at Vancouver - while far from unique - was symbolic

Russia has been in deep gloom since recording its worst ever Winter Olympic results. It has a massive job to prepare for its own Olympics in four years' time, says the BBC's Richard Galpin.

On a bleak, snow-covered hill north of Moscow, lies a strange, concrete contraption.

It provides an important clue as to why Russia's Olympic athletes returned home from Vancouver late on Monday night with their heads hung low, having delivered the country's worst performance in the Winter Olympics.

The contraption which twists and turns down the hill, stands alone in the middle of nowhere, a bizarre piece of modernity dropped into the countryside.

It is Russia's only professional track for the bobsleigh, luge and skeleton, and should have been a key training ground for some of the new generation of athletes which the country so badly needed before the Vancouver Games.

But it was built too late.

According to officials, the teams of athletes preparing for these important ice sports were only able to start training on the track about 18 months ago.

"None of the athletes was ready," said Oleg Sukhoruchenko, the head coach at the track and a former member of the Olympic bobsleigh team.

"Vancouver was a horrible failure."

'Fat cat' bureaucrats

Many questions are now being asked about how the money provided by the government for new facilities and training ahead of the Vancouver Olympics was actually spent.

Richard Galpin at Russia's only sliding track
Russia's only sliding track was developed too late for Vancouver

It is reported that $25m (£17m) was allocated last year alone, and yet there is agreement that the country still lacks proper training facilities.

In his angry statement on Monday calling on senior sports officials to resign, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev warned the sports federations, saying they had become like "fat cats", and that the focus should be shifted away from the bureaucrats and onto the athletes instead.

But amid the outburst of hand-wringing and mud-slinging in Russia since the Vancouver Games drew to a close, there is a general consensus that the problem is more deep-rooted, dating back to the collapse of the Soviet Union almost 20 years ago.

"After the Soviet Union collapsed, there was virtually no investment in professional sport," says Oleg Sukhoruchenko, the bobsleigh coach.

"So we have lost a whole generation of athletes. Hence, our result in Vancouver.

"But I am certain a lot of new Russian stars will appear very soon."

The question is: How soon?

Not ready for Sochi

Russia itself is hosting the next Winter Olympics in four years' time.

Russian ice hockey players react after their defeat to Canada. Photo: 24 February 2010
Russia's men's ice hockey team lost in the quarter-final to Canada 7-3

The games, due to be held near the Black Sea resort of Sochi, are a matter of prestige for Russia and in particular Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who ensured Sochi's bid for the Olympics was successful.

Another dismal performance by the Russian team in 2014 would be highly embarrassing for the country which, as part of the Soviet Union, dominated the Winter Games for decades.

But Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko, who is now under pressure to resign, gave a gloomy forecast when he arrived back in Moscow on Monday night from Canada.

"It will take six to eight years to develop a new generation of Olympic athletes," he said.

"It's a very serious task, and we've only just started working on it.

"I don't think we'll be ready before the 2018 games."

President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin will be hoping they can prove him wrong, so Russia is not humiliated once again.

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