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Friday, 22 February, 2002, 17:02 GMT

Russians question their hosts

BBC Sport Online's Alex Gubbay examines the significance of Russia's brinkmanship at the Winter Olympics.

Russia's threat to pull out of these Olympics has exploded tensions that have been bubbling under the surface since the early days of these Salt Lake Games.

It has also firmly focused attention on the attitude and approach of their American hosts.

Skategate, the furore which saw the Canadian duo upgraded to gold alongside the Russian pair, revealed bloc voting was still a problem in that particular sport.

But several decisions since, across other events, have reopened wider 'Cold War' wounds.

Reasons for Russian boycott threat
Figure skating: Forced to share gold with Canada after alleged vote-rigging
Ice hockey: Unhappy over players sin-binned during quarter-final win over Czech Republic
Cross-country: Protest after favourite Larissa Lazutina is forced out before race with high haemoglobin level
Free skate: Formal complaint over judging after Irina Slutskaya misses out on gold

There are not many days left at these Games, but the Russian boycott threat is still hugely symbolic.

They have often felt unwelcome here, and that the Olympic spirit has come a distant second to subjective, partisan opinion.

According to Russian Minister of Sport Pavel Rozhkov, they are not the only ones.

"The Koreans, the Ukranians and the French feel exactly the same way," he told the BBC.

"It is no longer about Olympism. These 'American Games' have been all about money, and selling the showbusiness of the competition to their own people.

"These very visible tendencies are not only sad for the Russians, but for the Olympic movement in general."

By taking their grievances straight to the International Olympic Committee, the Russians also raised the stakes on behalf of those other nations who feel hard done by.

They could have protested to the individual sporting federations, but going directly to IOC chief Jacques Rogge brought matters to a swift head.

Rogge has already spoken to those federations, and written to Russian president Vladimir Putin pleading for calm - he knows all too well that more brinkmanship would be very dangerous.

The Russians however want Rogge to be even more assertive.

"Our main complaint is that this newly-elected president seems to have no influence on federations," Rozhkov continued.

"They are too free, and make decisions far too independently. Rules must be objective and strictly obeyed."

Skategate apart, Kim Dong-Sung's disqualification in the short track has been the worst of some puzzling decisions.

But the fact it propelled American teen idol Apolo Anton Ohno to gold, and sparked wild celebration at the Salt Lake Ice Center, made it all the more galling for the Koreans.

The Russian complaints about their treatment in the ice hockey and cross-country are arguably less concrete.

But they have been smarting since Skategate, and those two incidents were the final straw.

Russian officials looked to their president for backing, and Putin agreed they should be more "forceful and take a stronger stand in defending their athletes".

And the country's Olympic delegation did just that when they filed a formal protest at what they saw as biased judging in Thursday night's free skate, when Irina Slutskaya lost out to American Sarah Hughes.

The accompanying boycott threat demands an equally poignant gesture, possibly from Games organisers as well as the IOC, to restore their bruised pride.

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