Even amid widespread bans, Russia’s sports stars have continued to shine in the past 12 months
Russian sport has been buffeted by a sanctions storm in 2022, brought about as part of the fallout from the conflict in Ukraine.
But even as hundreds of their compatriots remained sidelined, numerous Russian athletes have tasted success in the past 12 months.
From the ski slopes and ice rinks of the Winter Olympics in Beijing, to the cages of the UFC and tennis courts of the ATP and WTA tours, Russians have ascended to the pinnacles of their respective sports.
Here, we look at some of the standout sporting achievements from 2022.
Figure skating: Olympic champions and trendsetters
Russia has never lacked for talent in figure skating – a fact borne out yet again by the showing at the Beijing Winter Olympics in February.
Competing in the days before they were banned from international competitions, Russian skaters left Beijing with six medals in total – the most of any nation. That included gold medals in the team and women’s individual events.
The women’s Olympic title was claimed after a spellbinding performance from Russian teenager Anna Shcherbakova, who finished top of podium ahead of compatriot Alexandra Trusova.
Trusova made history in her free skate routine by becoming the first female ever to land five quads, but that was not enough to deny Shcherbakova an Olympic title to add to the World Championship gold she claimed in 2021. Favorite Kamila Valieva finished a disappointing fourth, although by that stage her Olympic dream had turned sour following the news of a positive doping sample collected six weeks prior to the Games.
Valieva, then aged 15, had already starred in Beijing as part of the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) group
which won gold in the team event just before the scandal emerged.
Whether or not the Russian team keeps its status as Beijing champions will depend on
the outcome of an appeal by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).
Russian sporting and political figures have rallied round Valieva – a skater who boasts world record scores for her staggering routines – and have
vehemently argued her innocence.
As things stand, Valieva and her teammates can still call themselves Olympic team champions, even if they have yet to be awarded their medals.
Cross-country skiing: Medal hauls and rising stars
Russia’s figures skaters were not the only ones leaving Beijing with a hefty medal haul in tow.
Indeed, the nation’s cross-country skiers topped the table in terms of overall medals in their events with 11 in all. Men’s star Aleksandr Bolshunov was responsible for a significant part of that tally. He won individual gold in the men’s 50km freestyle and skiathlon, also topping the podium as part of the 4 x 10km relay team with Alexey Chervotkin, Denis Spitsov, and Sergey Ustiugov. Bolshunov, 25, added silver in the 15km classic and bronze in the team sprint alongside Aleksandr Terentev. His combined medals tally from the 2018 and 2022 editions of the Winter Games stands at nine, making Bolshunov the most successful Russian male Winter Olympian of all-time. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Bolshunov was named Russia’s Sportsman of the Year at a recent ceremony in Moscow. Russia’s women’s skiers also shone in Beijing, with the 4 x 5km relay team of Yulia Stupak, Natalia Nepryaeva, Tatiana Sorina, and Veronika Stepanova storming to gold. Stepanova anchored the team to success, giving her an Olympic title at the age of just 21. She has followed her success with some fervent criticism of the bans imposed on Russian athletes in the past 10 months. Once Russia skiers are cleared to return to the slopes at international events, bright things appear in store for the Kamchatka native.
Teammate Nepryaeva, meanwhile, was a three-time medalist in Beijing, also
earning silver in the women’s 15km skiathlon and bronze in the team sprint alongside Stupak. Hockey: Stanley Cup winners and record-breakers
In the NHL, Russia continued its run of having at least one representative on the past seven Stanley Cup-winning teams as winger Valeri Nichushkin helped the Colorado Avalanche
to its first title since 2001.
Nichushkin, 27, defied a foot injury to be one of the standout stars for the Avalanche as they prevented the Tampa Bay Lightning from an historic ‘threepeat’ of successes.
That meant disappointment for Tampa’s Russian trio of goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, defenseman Mikhail Sergachev, and winger Nikita Kucherov, although they could surely be proud of putting themselves within touching distance again.
Elsewhere, Igor Shesterkin of the New York Rangers
won the 2022 Vezina Trophy for the league’s best goaltender – continuing a strong tradition of Russian goalie talent in the elite North American league.
The current NHL season has already seen Russian winger Kirill Kaprizov
break franchise records for the Minnesota Wild.
And then, of course, there is the evergreen Alexander Ovechkin, who continues his pursuit of the NHL’s all-time goals record.
The Washington Capitals star moved onto 802 goals for his career this month, overtaking Canadian icon Gordie Howe in second place on the all-time list. Only the great Wayne Gretzky now stands above Ovechkin on 894 goals. Ovechkin, 37, will continue the chase in 2023 as he aims to restore the Capitals to among the Stanley Cup contenders. Tennis: World number one and top-10 talents
Something of a rarity amid the widespread bans in 2022, tennis officials on the WTA and ATP tours allowed Russian and Belarusian players to continue to compete under neutral status.
While Russia ended the year without a current Grand Slam champion, that does not mean the past 12 months were without milestones.
Notably, Daniil Medvedev became the first man outside of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Andy Murray in the last 18 years to become world number one. Medvedev spent a total of 16 weeks at the top of the ATP charts in 2022 – a new record for a Russian male player. There was disappointment for Medvedev as he lost the 2022 Australian Open final against Nadal, despite holding a two-set lead.
The Russian, 26, also endured a layoff due to a hernia operation and ended up losing two of the four other ATP finals he contested in the year – but did win titles at Los Cabos in Mexico and in Vienna.
Elsewhere, Andrey Rublev won four ATP tour titles as he cemented his status inside the world top 10, also making a maiden appearance
in the last four of the ATP finals in Italy last month.
Compatriot Karen Khachanov, 26, reached a first semifinal of a Grand Slam
at the US Open in September.
In the women’s game, Russian pair Daria Kasatkina and Veronika Kudermetova ended the year inside the world top 10.
Kasatkina, 25, reached a maiden Grand Slam semifinal at the French Open in June, losing to eventual winner Iga Swiatek.
Nonetheless, Kasatkina ended up claiming two WTA tour titles in 2022.
Kudermetova, 25, was a two-time Grand Slam quarterfinalist and reached three WTA tour finals in 2022, falling short on each occasion. She did, however, enjoy doubles success, winning the prestigious WTA Finals event at Fort Worth alongside Belgian partner Elise Mertens in November. Elsewhere in the women’s world top 20, Russia’s Liudmila Samsonova enjoyed a standout year, winning titles in Washington DC, Cleveland, and Tokyo. The 24-year-old will hope to continue her upwards ascent in 2023.
Compatriot Ekaterina Alexandrova, 28, captured two WTA titles this year to finish the season at a career-high ranking of world number 19 – something she will hope to build upon.
It was a frustrating year for former Russian women’s number one Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova after she
was ruled out from mid-May due to a longstanding knee injury.
her recent return at the World Tennis League exhibition event in Dubai means Pavlyuchenkova will at least be fit to start the 2023 season. Combat sports: World champions and a prophecy fulfilled
This was the year that saw one of Russian MMA’s most prominent prophecies fulfilled.
Islam Makhachev, for so long the heir apparent to Khabib Nurmagomedov in the UFC lightweight division, made good on his undoubted potential when he defeated Brazil’s Charles Oliveira to claim the vacant UFC 155lbs crown in Abu Dhabi in October.
Makhachev, a longtime training partner and stablemate of Khabib, now stands at the absolute forefront of Russian MMA in place of his retired colleague.
Makhachev’s next test
comes in February in Australia against reigning UFC featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski – considered by most to be the sport’s top pound-for-pound star.
The New Year could see Dagestan’s Makhachev take another step towards combat sports immortality as he looks to emulate – or even eclipse – the legendary career of the Russian champion who came before him.
Elsewhere, Dagestan produced a fellow MMA world title holder in the form of Bellator lightweight champion Usman Nurmagomedov.
Another fighter capably following in the footsteps of his cousin Khabib, Usman secured his first prominent world title when he captured the Bellator lightweight championship by outpointing Patricky ‘Pitbull’ Freire across five rounds in November – increasing his record to a perfect 16-0 in the process.
Aged just 24, Usman went a long way to building his own legacy in 2022 – and next year promises to be even bigger as he takes on a range of challengers determined to seize the gold belt from around his waist.
Russia’s Vadim Nemkov is another fighter enjoying success under the Bellator banner.
The 30-year-old fought just twice in 2022, and both against the same opponent, but his November decision win against gritty American Corey Anderson saw him win the Bellator light heavyweight Grand Prix – and with it a check of $1 million.
A protege of the great Fedor Emelianenko, Nemkov has been picture perfect since 2016 – save for a no-contest in his first fight with Anderson in April of this year, which was ended prematurely after an accidental clash of heads.
Ranked as the top 205lbs fighter in the world by some independent bodies within MMA, Nemkov has had no equal thus far in Bellator – and the only fighter towards the summit of the rankings he has not yet beaten is veteran Cuban Yoel Romero.
Nemkov will get an opportunity to put that right when they fight in early February.
In the boxing ring, beating the legendary Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez can be described as a career highlight for any fighter – and that is exactly what Russia’s Dmitry Bivol did in 2022.
Despite walking to the ring for their WBA light heavyweight title fight in May as a heavy underdog, the unbeaten Bivol outworked four-division world champion Alvarez throughout the majority of their bout,
earning a unanimous decision victory. It was only a second-ever loss for Mexican fighter Alvarez – and his first since a majority decision defeat at the hands of Floyd Mayweather in 2013.
Bivol, who was born in Kyrgyzstan but moved to St. Petersburg as a youngster, followed that up by handing another Mexican fighter, Gilberto Ramirez, his first ever defeat
in their contest in November.
More challenges lie in store for Bivol in 2023, including a potential Canelo rematch – or potentially a contest with another Russian name making headlines this year, knockout king Artur Beterbiev.
Beterbiev fought just once in 2022 but made enough of an impression in his two-round shellacking of Joe Smith Jr in June to suggest that even bigger things will be forthcoming.
The reigning, defending WBC, IBF, and WBO light heavyweight champion, Beterbiev will put his array of world titles on the line when he faces Briton Anthony Yarde in January in London.
For Beterbiev, a Dagestani-born fighter who is now based in Canada, the bout with Yarde is another chance to showcase the much-vaunted KO power which has seen him end every single one of his 18 career contests inside the distance.
Beyond that, there is clamor for a potential blockbuster all-Russian light heavyweight unification fight with Bivol.
The coming year will likely determine if that showdown becomes reality or remains in the realms of boxing fantasy.