Russia Folding Under Hype, Pressure, and Expectations at Olympics

ovechkin022610.jpgOK, so I admit I was totally wrong when I assumed that Evgeni Plushenko would quad-twirl his way to a gold medal in men’s figure skating over his U.S. competitor Evan Lysacek, but then again, I know next to nothing about this odd sport.  But I was quite taken aback to watch the Russian hockey team receive a 7-3 thrashing at the hands of the Canadians, and the dominant Alexander Ovechkin, one of my favorite players, was silenced by the stout defense.

What is going on here?  The United States is currently leading with 32 medals (8 gold, 12 silver, 12 bronze), followed by Germany and Norway.  Russia is standing in fifth place with 13 medals, and could get bumped out by Austria.  Some are feeling pretty bitter about the performance of their athletes at this year’s games, hoping for a strong showing as a preview to the next round at Sochi, while some lawmakers are even calling for “heads to roll.” 

Perhaps all the hype, pressure, and high expectations of Russian performance at the games was a bit suffocating, with all the athletes fearing retribution more than craving the prestige of victory. 

The U.S. television coverage hasn’t helped either, with NBC desperately attempting to create a new Cold War by playing sinister music and propping up Kremlin backdrops (may as well have added goose stepping soldiers in between figure skaters).

Julia Ioffe, who has been doing some great blogging on Russia in the Games over at True/Slant, has quoted NATO Ambassador Dmitry Rogozin’s Twitter:  “Because of disgraceful performance of our team I’m afraid to approach TV-set (…) How on earth could we have blown it so disastrously in hockey?

Shame is being heaped upon not just the under-performing athletes, but the Russian people themselves.  On, Miriam Elder quotes former Olympian and Duma member Svetlana Zhurova, “Many say [our poor performance is the result of] less financingbecause of the crisis of the 1990s, but that’s not it. (…) It’s the mentality of our people and ourkids.  Our people don’t want to see athletes make something ofthemselves — they think they can’t do anything meaningful becausethey’ve just been training all their lives.

Now that’s just hardcore.  Russia has some tremendously talented athletes in this year’s games,and it’s been a pleasure to see them compete, and 13 medals and counting is not such a bad result (in some cross country and biathlon events, the Russians were pretty dominant).  But the nationalbitterness and anger seems to be totally out of whack.  If theAmericans or Canadians or Germans had fielded a terrible Olympic squad, I suspectthat most would just shrug and change the channel – which is either a healthy separation between pride of nation and pride of individual, or on the other hand, a disappointing lack of love for the motherland. 

I suppose in a wayI can respect how emotionally invested a country like Russia is in each and everyevent, as though winning a game of curling is like being on thebattlefield of national pride, and any loss is a humiliation to all. In some ways it is a lesson in the new Russian nationalism, and that this anger over the losses may end up being cathartic – if not quite antiquated.

Given how fond Vladimir Putin is of making grand, centrally planned directives, he might want to apply the state budget toward building year-round half pipes for snowboarders, or send the biathlon team to train at Ramzan Kadyrov’s new ski resort in the mountains of Chechnya…