Monday, March 1, 2010

Medal-less Russian Olympians Forced into Exile

VANCOUVER -- Olympian Yuri Lysenko was looking forward to seeing his daughter, Ksenia, and having a big bowl of his wife's borscht, which he hoped would ease his disappointment over having missed out on a medal.

But it turns out that the Russian's disappointment paled in comparison to that of Moscow's. When he showed up at the airport in Vancouver, Lysenko was informed that, by order of President Dmitry Medvedev, he was on the Russian "no fly" list and would not be allowed back into his native country due to his poor showing at the Olympics.

Lysenko was not alone in his exile. He soon ran into a glum Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov, the Russian figure skating pair that finished a disappointing 4th at the Olympics, ending a 46-year pairs medal streak. Smirnov was sadly swilling from a bottle of duty free vodka, comforting Kavaguti -- who gave up her Japanese citizenship in order to be able to compete in the Olympics -- as she sobbed into the shoulder of his feather and rhinestone encrusted jacket.

According to Smirnov, all the Russian figure skaters had traveled to the Vancouver airport together, but only Evgeni Plushenko was allowed to check in. Although Plushenko won a silver medal, he criticized gold medalist Evan Lysacek for failing to perform any quadruple jumps and quickly declared himself winner of a platinum medal. Plushenko's sentiment was shared by his countrymen, and he received a message from Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin that "Your silver is worth gold."

Not all Russian medals were merited an upgrade, however. Cross country skier Alexander Panzhinskiy's silver was received with disappointment, though he was allowed to return to Russia. And the four man biathlon team that won bronze in the relay event was permitted past security only after signing forms promising to "train harder, faster and better so as not to bring shame and dishonor upon the country ever again."

The stakes are high for Russia, which is set to host the next winter Olympics in Sochi. In addition to banishing poor performers, Medvedev called on the country's sports officials to resign. A repeat poor performance like Vancouver would be an unbearable wound to Russia's pride, Medvedev said.

One sports official who spoke on condition of anonymity said that there were many obstacles that prevented Russians from bringing as much lucre back as those athletes who represented the Soviet Union. "Back then, the drug tests weren't as advanced and it was much easier to falsify ages," the official said. "Nowadays, the athletes are lazy and coddled. It isn't enough to see their parents every other Christmas; they want every Christmas plus a summer holiday too. And their parents sometimes already live in an apartment that has more than one bedroom for seven people so we can't dangle that as a prize for gold either."

Two days after the Closing Ceremonies, the displaced Russians were starting to regroup and assess their futures. Lysenko said that he would seek to bring his wife and daughter to wherever he ended up, and that he hoped to continue training. He said he had fielded offers of citizenship from Belarus and Ukraine, two other former Soviet republics, but that he had fallen in love with Canada. "They tell me that the northern tundra is just as desolate and cold as Siberia, where I used to train," Lysenko said.

But one Russian team will not be welcome in Canada: hockey. Canadians are still, for the most part, riding high after beating the United States in overtime for the gold medal. The Canadians had easily defeated Russia -- once a hockey powerhouse -- in the quarterfinals. Still, a good number of Russian players, including Alex Ovechkin, currently play in the NHL, and their millions in future earnings will not be affected.

As for who will represent Russia at the 2014 games, the gold medalists from Vancouver are being lobbied to stay on for another four years, along with Plushenko. According to one government official, they are considered recruiting citizens of other countries to compete for them who have the natural talent but lack the Russian training and austere living conditions that produced so many Soviet champions. American figure skater Johnny Weir -- placed sixth in figure skating -- is one such candidate who they are eyeing. Weir, a self-proclaimed "Russiaphile" placed five slots above Artem Borodulin, the second ranked Russian.

"He loves Russia, he has a Russian coach, and he is artistic and lyrical," said the official. "Plus we do not have PETA over here. He can wear all the fur he wants."

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