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Petty Corruption Has Killed the Great Russian Athletic Machine

AFP/Getty Images

I've said from the beginning that there is one thing that would be far worse for Russia than a terrorist attack during the Olympics: Russia flunking at the actual Games themselves.

It's not a far-fetched scenario. In 2010, at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Russia performed abominably. It placed 11th in the overall medals count, a noble result for many countries but a national disaster for a winter sports powerhouse that was heir to the Soviet athletic machine. Not only that, but the country that stocks the rosters of hockey teams around the world was trounced by Canada, of all places. Trounced 7 to 3. Russia was booted from the brackets before it could even compete for a medal. Overall, it was the worst result for Russia in Olympic history—that is, ever.

At the time, I was a new reporter in Moscow and all I can remember people talking about that winter was the shame of it all. When the hockey team lost, the city of Tomsk had a moment of silence. Then-president Dmitry Medvedev canceled his trip to Vancouver. The state Audit Chamber ordered an investigation into what went wrong. When it released its findings a few months later, it was clear, as I wrote at the time, why the Russian team had failed.

Some highlights:

-- Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko spent $1400 a night on his hotel room, for 20 nights (regulations cap hotels at $130)
-- Mutko had a fantastical 97 breakfasts during his 20 day stay
-- Tickets to Russian supporters were sold at 11 times their face value
-- Awarding equipment contracts to bogus firms that were based right inside the Sports Ministry. These firms jacked up their “prices” by as much as 66%
-- Shelling out money for events that had no time, place, or description
-- Paying for extra—and unnecessary—people to come to Vancouver with the Russian delegation (people like skater Evgeny Pluschenko’s wife) but not paying for other people, like two coaches on the bobsledding team
-- And my favorite: Many athletes were trained by high school sports coaches

While people are calling for Mutko’s head, last night’s meeting of the Federation Council (the upper house of the Russian Parliament) to discuss the audit’s findings didn’t even result in a wrist slap. In fact, Mutko’s name wasn’t even mentioned.

That is: corruption. Corruption, in the form of kickbacks, skimming, and outright theft, had corroded the great Soviet machine that had given the world so many great athletes. Why? Because most money for sports in Russia comes from the government—from the aforementioned Sports Ministry—and because money is a finite sum, and if all that money is being spent on luxury lodgings and 97 breakfasts, it isn't getting somewhere else. For example: Figure skater Evgeni Plushenko, who is back competing in Sochi, complained after his second place finish in Vancouver that, of all the money alloted for his training, only a fraction had made it through. 

Guess what, though? After the devastating report, Mutko did not lose his job. He was not even reprimanded. In fact, he's still in charge of sports and he was sitting next to Putin when he watched Yulia Lipnitskaya win gold for the Russian Federation. 

The problem, though, is there haven't been many medals won since then, gold or otherwise. So far, every day brings news of another Russian athlete failing to win a medal. So far, Russia is in sixth place in the medal count, behind Norway, Canada, Holland, the U.S., and Germany. It's early still, but, given what happened in Vancouver I'd say it's a shaky start for a host country with a lot of pride on the line. Russia may very well come back from this, but, in the meantime, it's definitely something to keep an eye on.

Mutko, in the meantime, isn't sweating it. "I'm not ashamed of our athletes," he told journalists today. "The Olympics have only just begun."

All right, Mutko. We'll be watching. 

New Republic Senior Editor Julia Ioffe will be writing dispatches from Russia for the duration of the Olympics. For the entire collection of her pieces, click here.