Wed, Jul 30, 2008 - Page 20 News List

FEATURE: Russia spending millions for Olympic edge

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , MOSCOW

Athletes train at the Podolsk Olympic training center near Moscow on July 17. The center produced many athletes who made the Soviet Union an Olympic powerhouse.

PHOTO: NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

FEATURE: The Podolsk Olympic training center located outside Moscow was built more than a half century ago to develop the athletes who would transform the Soviet Union into an athletic superpower.

Today, the red rubber track is well-worn and the paint peeling. The newest structure, a dormitory, was built in 1986, and the medical center is housed in the crumbling former country home of a czarist-era baker.

The Russian athletes heading to the Beijing Olympics in a couple of weeks may be the last to train among the cracked facades of Soviet-era complexes like Podolsk. Hundreds of sleek athletic facilities are springing up everywhere, it seems, heralding an athletics boom in a country hungry for sporting prestige and wallowing in cash.

Fears of losing Olympic ascendancy have impelled Russia to spend the last several years pumping billions of dollars from its oil-swollen coffers into rebuilding an athletics infrastructure left to rot when the Soviet Union crumbled. The investment has already shown impressive results, with Russians attaining international success in arenas beyond the Olympics.

Last September, the national basketball team won the European championship for the first time since the Soviet Union fell in 1991. In May, the national hockey team beat Canada for its first world championship in 15 years and St. Petersburg’s Zenit soccer club won the UEFA Cup championship. Last month, the national soccer team created a frenzy by advancing to the semi-finals at the European championship. In the world tennis rankings, five of the top 10 women are Russian.

At the Beijing Olympics, Russia is expected to contend for supremacy at the top of the medal table — as usual.

Vyacheslav Fetisov, the former National Hockey League star, is the head of Rossport, the government agency charged with overseeing Russia’s athletic development. He said his budget for building up the country’s athletic infrastructure had soared from a couple hundred thousand dollars when his agency was created in 2002 to US$1 billion today.

The government plans to build 4,000 new athletic facilities in the coming years, including pools, gymnastics halls, and stadiums for soccer and hockey, Fetisov said. About 300 facilities were built last year, and another 400 are scheduled for completion this year.

As heir to the Soviet Union’s legacy of Olympic domination, Russia maintained a steadfast foothold on the Olympic summit through the Soviet collapse and the subsequent economic and social chaos. Until the Athens Games in 2004, it had finished first or second in the gold medal count in the Summer Games, although it faltered somewhat in the Winter Olympics.

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