There were no high hopes on the eve of the biathlon championship in Yugorsk in Khanty-Mansiisk (see Novaya Gazeta No.22, 2 March 2011), but reality was worse than the gloomiest forecasts: our squad was lucky to place sixth (the male team won three silver medals at the wire). And to cap it all off, a scandal unfolded when the coach of the women’s team, Anatoly Khovantsev, was sacked as the final relay of the winter season was under way.
The President of the Russian Biathlon Union, Mikhail Prokhorov, who had flown into Khanty-Mansiisk for the championship, did not wait for the end of the event to start a post-mortem analysis of the biggest failure in the history of Russian biathlon. The head of ONEXIM Group is a tough man and one resignation (which has yet to be officially approved by the Ministry of Sport) will not be the end of the story. But then we have heard similar talk after the failure of our biathlon team at the Vancouver Winter Olympics. Neither massive injections of financing nor replacing coaches helped.
“The main obstacle is the conviction that the Russian biathlon school is the best in the world” was the verdict of the current head of the Russian Biathlon Union. While its former leader, the famous biathlon athlete Alexander Tikhonov, responded that in his two and a half years at the helm Prokhorov’s only achievement was to “appoint the worst team of coaches and the worst manager in the world”. Not a very constructive exchange of opinions. Against the background of this verbal duel the top Russian biathlon woman, Olga Zaitseva, announced that she was ending her career after this season: “I wanted to go out in style, but it was not to be.”
Our women’s relay team made the top ten, completing the story of this bizarre national championship: at the very start of the mixed relay Svetlana Sleptsova botched the shooting range stage and on the last day the experienced Anna Bogaly-Titsovets had five penalties. Our heroic shooting women skiers were left without world championship trophies for the first time in the history of Russian biathlon. When the failure became evident, the head coach, Vladimir Barnashov, gave his judgment: “You want to know why we are failing? The team is a mess.”
Well, we didn’t need Barnashov to tell us that. A sense of horror was mounting with every passing day and every new race. The championship, which the athletes were set to win (this was used as an excuse for the lackluster performance at the World Cup stages) was turning out to be a disaster. In the process we learned some startling things: it turns out that our biathlon athletes (mainly women) were unhappy about everything: the hard snow, the cold weather, the difficult tracks and even the crowd reaction.
But that begged a certain question. At least half of the Russian participants hail from this or neighbouring areas (as a matter of fact, Svetlana Sleptsova lives in Khanty-Mansiisk). Are they telling us that it was their first experience with such snow and uncomfortable weather? Everybody knows that the weather is cold and windy in Khanty-Mansiisk in early March. But even athletes from warmer climates, such as Magdalena Neuner of Germany, liked the snow and did not mind the weather and hardly ever complained about the track.
The crowds watching the championship were not particularly large. True, towards the very end the organizers began to bus spectators to the stadium. Clearly this was not Norway’s Holmenkollen, where about 150,000 spectators watched the men’s cross-country marathon on the final day of the championship. If a comparatively small crowd could unnerve our stars, what was the point in staging a world championship and exert all the effort and incur all the costs? They might as well have gone to the Alps or wherever there would be no home crowd pressure. There is a lesson here to be borne in mind, especially with a view to the Sochi Olympics (the championship was seen as a dress rehearsal for these Olympics): if the home crowd is a disadvantage rather than an advantage, why win one bid after another and play host to everyone? Who needs infrastructure with its staggering cost if the hosts feel uncomfortable in it?
While the coaches shrugged their shoulders and the athletes complained, their opponents were winning race after race, and even winning a team medal was becoming more and more remote. The Norwegian and German women ended up winning four gold medals, and France, Finland and Sweden took one apiece. Well into the championship, Russia still had no medals. It was good that veteran Maxim Maximov, whom nobody had expected to make a good showing, suddenly collected silver in the individual race and later pursued the Norwegians in the relay race together with Ivan Cherezov, Yevgeny Ustyugov and Anton Shipulin, and in the mass start Ustyugov won a third silver. These three prizes kept Russia within the top ten, but that only sugar coated things.
The atmosphere in the women’s team was until the very end like drifting along in a graveyard. “Everyone was silent, sad and crying,” said Vladimir Drachev, world champion and former advisor to the Russian team (who was sacked on 8 March, International Women’s Day). Only the irrepressible commentator and showman Dmitry Guberniyev “who is always with you” (thank God, not always) bellowed into the mike making the situation still more absurd. The more our team headed towards a debacle, the more surrealistic was all the fuss around the biathlon event, unaccompanied by any attempt at analysis. A show in the midst of dismal failure must have a different name, but Guberniyev carried the situation to the limit by becoming the main hero of the Khanty-Mansiisk tragicomedy.
As Prokhorov said during his inspection, the sports structure has changed, while “we are in the old paradigm.”
I am afraid even the President of the Russian Biathlon Union cannot predict who will be in charge of the new paradigm.