What conclusions can be drawn from the performance of Russian athletes at the Beijing Games?
The last contingent of Russia’s Winter Olympians is due to arrive back in Moscow on Monday after departing Beijing, following a fortnight of intense competition on various ski slopes, ice rinks, and racetracks.
Over the past two weeks or so, there have been successes and failures, trials and tribulations, heart-warming moments and unsavory sagas for the stars from the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) team.
Here, we assess how the 2022 Beijing Games went from the perspective of Russian sport.
What were Russian expectations before the Beijing Games?
Heading into Beijing, Russian officials were optimistic of a far better showing than four years ago in PyeongChang.
At the 2018 Winter Games, the Russian team (then named ‘Olympic Athletes from Russia’) managed 17 medals in total, consisting of just two gold, six silver and nine bronze medals. That left the OAR team languishing in 13th place in the medal table.
Before Beijing, ROC chief Stanislav Pozdnyakov said the team was aiming for a significant increase on that number.
“We see that our athletes are capable of winning a total of about 30 medals. We will focus on this result,” Pozdnyakov said back in December. How many medals did the Russian team win in Beijing?
Those aims proved prescient as the ROC team ended up winning a total of 32 medals in China. That tally consists of six gold, 12 silver and 14 bronze medals.
Based on gold medals and the official Beijing table, the ROC team was ninth; but in terms of the overall total of medals, the Russian team was second behind only Norway.
The total medal tally is a Winter Games record for Russia, beating the 30 medals accumulated at Sochi 2014.
Summing up the results in Beijing, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Chernyshenko – a key figure in Russian sport –
said the country’s “strategic goal” is to be back in the top three of the medal table at the 2030 Winter Games. Who were the standout Russian stars in Beijing?
Russia’s main man at the Beijing Games was undoubtedly cross-country skier Alexander Bolshunov. The 25-year-old became his country’s most decorated Olympic skier ever as he amassed a personal haul of five medals in China, including
a hat-trick of golds in the skiathlon, 4 x 10km relay, and mass start events.
Russia’s women’s cross-country skiers were also exceptional as
they stormed to gold in the 4 x 5km relay. That team included Natalia Nepryaeva, who left Beijing with three medals in total, also scooping silver in the skiathlon and bronze in the women’s team sprint.
Overall, the ROC team won more cross-country medals than any other nation in Beijing, capturing 11 in total – three more than powerhouses Norway.
Figure skating was also rich vein of success for the Russian team in Beijing, where they captured a table-topping six medals in all. That included gold in the team event after a spellbinding performance from 15-year-old Kamila Valieva, although the medal ceremony was not held due to the saga which later unfolded surrounding a doping sample from December.
Russian sensation Anna Shcherbakova, 17,
won gold in the women’s individual figure skating event, with fellow teenager Alexandra Trusova earning silver with a history-making performance. Russian duets won silver and bronze medals in the pairs event, as well as a silver in the ice dance competition. Was there any unexpected Russian success?
Perhaps the biggest surprise for the Russian team in Beijing was
a first-ever medal in the ski jump. Capitalizing on outfit issues which saw a host of rivals suffer disqualifications, the ROC won silver in the mixed team event. Prior to that, no Russian had won a ski jump medal of any kind since Vladimir Belousov claimed gold way back in 1968 when representing the Soviet Union.
US-born snowboarder Vic Wild – who became a Russian hero at the Sochi 2014 Games with two gold medals –
won an emotional and unexpected bronze in the parallel giant slalom in Beijing, signaling afterwards that he may call time on his remarkable career. Which moments were particularly poignant?
While snowboarder Wild was moved after his earning his bronze, elsewhere there were touching scenes as ski cross contender Sergey Ridzik won the same color medal before breaking down in front of the cameras as he apologized to his wife for missing the birth of their daughter to be in Beijing.
Russian biathlete Irina Kazakevich helped the team to silver in the women’s 4 x 6km relay,
before revealing that her father had sadly been buried the same day after a long-running battle with cancer.
The hug between
Russian freestyle skier Ilya Burov and Ukrainian competitor Oleksandr Abramenko during their event was also held up by IOC boss Thomas Bach as a moment which captured the Olympic spirit.
There was a slightly different outburst of emotion in the speed skating, where Russia’s Daniil Aldoshkin
apologized after making a double middle-finger gesture following victory over the US team in the semifinals. “I didn't mean anything like that. I’m sorry if this offended anyone ,” said Aldoshkin as the team won silver. Which Russian stars suffered disappointment?
As always, results are a matter of perspective.
Russia’s men’s hockey team were unable to retain their Olympic title,
falling in the final against Finland on Sunday. Some defended that as a decent performance, while others accused the team of not being attack-minded enough in a tournament where NHL stars were again absent.
In biathlon, there was agony in the men’s 4 x 7.5km relay when the Russian team seemed nailed-on for gold heading into the final lap,
only for Eduard Latypov to suffer some errant shooting which meant the team finished third. Latypov still left Beijing with a hat-trick of bronzes, bagging medals in the mixed relay and individual pursuit.
Although women’s cross-country star Nepryaeva earned relay gold, individual silver and team sprint bronze, she endured agony in the 10km classic, missing out on a medal by just 0.1 seconds and
collapsing in despair at the finish line.
In the women’s freestyle skiing, there was controversy as Russia’s Anastasia Tatalina finished fourth,
accusing the judges of underscoring some parts of her run. Tatalina was backed in those claims by Russian Freestyle Federation president Alexei Kurashov, who said the skier “should have been among the medalists” and that they were upset. What about the Kamila Valieva scandal?
Undoubtedly the most unedifying aspect of the ROC’s team’s Beijing Games was the drama involving teenage figure skater Kamila Valieva.
Having helped the ROC to gold with a starring role in the team event, the 15-year-old was strong favorite for the title in the women’s individual title before news emerged of her positive result from a sample taken in December. Although Valieva was cleared to compete in the singles event, the ordeal clearly took a toll as she fell several times in her free skate routine.
The saga has been used by critics as ammunition for more allegations of Russian doping. In response, Russian officials have pointed out that Valieva did not test positive at the Games and returned repeated negative results before and after the sample in question. Concerns have also been raised as to why the result took more than six weeks to be reported – which has led to the Russian Anti-Doping Agency (RUSADA) and World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA)
The investigation will continue as officials from RUSADA and WADA both look into Valieva’s entourage, including coach Eteri Tutberidze, who was publicly criticized by IOC president Thomas Bach
in remarks which angered many in Russia.
There were also clashes over the decision by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) to clear Valieva to continue to compete in Beijing. The case has caused potential rifts between RUSADA and WADA as Russia seeks to be declared compliant again with the WADA Code.
However, considering that RUSADA was the authority which tested Valieva in the first place, it could be held up as evidence that Russian officials are fully performing their duties. The case is also far from resolved, with Valieva’s B Sample not being opened, nor the full circumstances of the positive test being clear. It will likely drag on in the coming weeks and months.
What has the reaction been in Russia to the Beijing Games?
Understandably, Valieva’s situation has dominated the headlines. She has been offered overwhelming support by officials, fellow sports stars and fans. Many see her treatment as unacceptable, not least because of her age. The teenager was greeted with
a hero’s welcome upon her return to Moscow on Friday.
More broadly, the ROC team’s performance has been met with optimism by Russian officials.
“The past Olympics have allowed us to draw conclusions on which aspects to put more emphasis on,” said Russian Sports Minister Oleg Matytsin. “Naturally, this is the training of the coaching staff and the expansion of the material base for athletes. Also an important factor is the psychological preparation of athletes, since psychology makes a huge contribution to their victory in competitions.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov
said: “Well done to our Olympians, everyone gave their best… Of course, we all want all the medals at the Olympics to be ours, but this is impossible. “Someone was stronger than our athletes, and we rejoice both for our victories and for the victories of our rivals.” Will these be the last Olympic Games without the Russian flag and anthem?
The ongoing WADA ban meant the Russian team in Beijing were again neutral and competed without their nation’s flag or anthem. Instead, we saw athletes appear under the ROC banner while Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto was played at medal ceremonies where Russian stars won gold.
Russia’s two-year WADA ban is due to expire on December 16 of this year, meaning that at the next Olympic Games in 2024 in Paris, the Russian tricolor and anthem should – in theory – make a welcome return.
However, WADA president Witold Banka
warned ahead of the Beijing Games that the reinstatement of RUSADA should not be taken for granted. Some will inevitably attempt to use the saga with Kamila Valieva as evidence that Russia should not be declared compliant by WADA.
In Russia’s defense, Valieva’s case is far from resolved and is a situation involving an individual sample taken back in December. Russian athletes
were among the most tested leading into the Beijing Olympics, and none returned positive tests at the Games.
As stylish as the ROC banner is – with its white, blue and red colors in the form of a flame above the Olympic rings – Russian stars will hope that Beijing is the last edition of the Games where they will need to use it.