Medal spotlight on Russia: Thin red line may get slim pickings at London 2012

Spotlight on the main medal contenders: The Russian team are hardly riding a wave of optimism, writes Robin Scott-Elliot, claiming they will do well to hold off a buoyant host nation in the battle for third in the medals table

A select number of Russia's Olympians will gather in the Kremlin this morning to be given a presidential send-off to London. Over the course of his apparently inexhaustible tenure as president/prime minister/president, Vladimir Putin has overseen huge investment in Russian sport, and like any careful investor he wants a return for the state's spend. Cash for gold.

Yet the team will depart on anything but a wave of optimism. Those in charge of Russian sport have spent the last weeks assiduously downplaying expectation, claiming they will do well to hang on to third place in the medal table ahead of a buoyant host nation. The declared target is third place and 25 gold medals – two more than Beijing – but it has been made almost as an aside, a pencilled footnote at the bottom of the London to-do list.

"We will not catch up with the US or China at this Olympics," suggested Vitaly Mutko, the sports minister. "It will be very difficult to win more medals than Britain… but if we end up fourth this will be no tragedy."

Russia – who will make up the third largest team in London behind Britain and the US – have not expressed such concern over a British threat since the Crimean War; this time the thin red line is Russian, set determinedly in the face of numerically superior opponents. Not everyone is on message. Earlier this week Nadia Petrova, the tennis player, was asked during a tournament in the US about the challenge that lay ahead in London. "The Russian mentality," she stated, "is if you are going to the Olympics you have got to be winning medals and failure is not acceptable."

There is one resounding reason for the polar difference between the man at the top and the woman in the field: Vancouver. Two years ago, Russia endured a disastrous winter Games. It culminated in their much-vaunted ice hockey team receiving a 7-3 hammering by Canada. "Nightmare in Vancouver" declared the front page of one leading newspaper. Russia finished the Games with three golds – one fewer than the Netherlands – and tumbled outside the top 10 in the medal table. Putin and Dmitry Medvedev, then keeping Putin's presidential seat warm, were not amused, especially having an estimated bill of $17bn for the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics to foot. They wanted blood for their misspent funds, and they were not the only ones.

Vyacheslav Bykov, coach of the disgraced ice hockey team, helpfully suggested those at the top of the Russian Olympic Committee should be "guillotined in Red Square". The man in charge, Leonid Tyagachyev, got the message and resigned – Mutko clung on to his job.

If Russia does finish fourth – a position they haven't sunk to since the country returned to the Games in 1996 – Mutko will face further questions. Any lower and they will be sharpening that guillotine again. The battle with Britain for third is likely to be closely fought and should Russia lose it there will be real anger among the Bykovs of the summer sports. Money has been poured into elite sport – as it has in the UK – but unlike in Britain it has often not been concentrated on coaching and the other fundamentals of sporting success at the highest level.

Instead, much has gone on creating an impression of excellence, marketing campaigns and offers of huge bonuses for gold medals and world titles, and, of course, all those billions on the Black Sea resort of Sochi, a summer holiday destination that will host a winter Games. And there is still the 2018 World Cup to pay for. Amid it all there have been accusations of political interference; the man who runs Russian swimming, Sergei Naryshkin, is a close Kremlin ally of the president.

Putin will be in London, but rather than in an official capacity it will be, so the Kremlin line goes, as a fan. He will head for ExCeL, the most underwhelming of London venues, to take in some judo. It may have already occurred to the most masculine of world leaders that if his country is to excel in London then it may well be down to the women of Russia.

More than half the 436 strong team is female – with all 204 competing nations including women for the first time, this Games is likely to have the largest number of female competitors in history. Among the 228 Russian women are many of their best gold medal contenders. Maria Sharapova, who will become the first woman to carry the Russian flag at the opening ceremony, has a poor Wimbledon to make amends for in what will be her first Games.

The other globally renowned presence among the gaudily dressed team – the Russian uniform will have few rivals as the worst of London 2012 – is Yelena Isinbayeva, the great pole vaulter. The gold medallist in Athens and Beijing has taken a sabbatical during this Olympic cycle – she compared her victory after victory after victory to eating too much chocolate – and has returned after a year off with her appetite restored. She is one of Russia's surest bets for gold; if Britain's rising star Holly Bleasdale were to pull off a shock win, Mutko might be spotted rubbing anxiously at the back of his neck.

The sporting breadth of Russia's team is impressive. Football, hockey and BMX are the only events in which they will not be represented. There will be medals in track and field – Mariya Savinova is a leading contender in the 800m – as well as in Russia's traditional areas of dominance, such as wrestling and fencing, while there are signs of a revival in gymnastics through two talented 17-year-olds, Viktoria Komova and Aliya Mustafina.

Since Russia re-emerged as a sporting entity at the 1996 Games, synchronised swimming has been another rewarding arena and that is in large part down to Anastasia Davydova. The 29-year-old Muscovite will be seeking a fifth gold – to add to 12 world titles – to take her decorous place among the country's great Olympians. Keep smiling through is both a synchronised swimming must and, it would seem, Russia's motto for 2012.

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