July 01, 2004

Looking for Athenian Gold

When it comes to the Olympics, Bishop Ethlelbert Talbot’s 1908 statement, that “the important thing in these Olympiads is not so much winning as taking part,” has long-ceased to be true. Any country going to Athens thinks first about the number of medals its team will bring home. But of course this is not stated openly; that would be bad form. Yet there is no denying that the summer Olympics are a political as much as an athletic event. Fans triumph and cry (and some curse), people enjoy the beauty of sport as did the Greeks millennia ago. But, in the end, everyone wants to know who will beat whom, which tiny country will upset a political powerhouse on the track, field or in the pool.

The desire to show other countries ‘kuzkina mat.’ is especially true for Russia, whose golden Olympic history came to an abrupt end with the breakup of the Soviet Union. Before the split, the USSR consistently brought home the most Olympic medals. But in recent games, it has vied with Germany and China for second place behind the US.

So, what can Russia reckon on in Greece? Recently, Victor Khotochkin, vice-president of the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) said in an interview that Russia, by the most pessimist forecast, could expect to win 23 gold medals; Russian athletes brought home 32 golds from Sydney in 2000 and 26 from Atlanta in 1996. “The target is to win what we must win,” Khotochkin told Izvestia. “And our main competitors are the Americans and the Chinese. And the Chinese team is strong in the sports that we have always dominated. Like diving.”

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