Winter Olympics 2014: The ‘new Russia’ basks in its £30bn of gold glory

Mission accomplished for Putin as host nation finishes top of medals list

sochi

When Alexander Zubkov, a former taxi driver from Irkutsk in Russia’s distant frozen east, powered his bobsleigh over the red finish line yesterday he collected the host nation’s 13th and final gold medal of the Sochi Games.

It was more than anyone else managed and their total of 33 medals was also more than anyone else, more than the Canadians, the Norwegians and, to their great relish, more than the Americans.

It was what Vladimir Putin wanted and it was what Putin got. The Big Red Machine, as the US used to call it, was once again in full working order.

Minutes after Zubkov’s victory – the stern-faced 39-year-old has become one of the home heroes of the Games with two gold medals – the eight-car cavalcade containing Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian Prime Minister, swept out of the Sanki Sliding Centre in the hills above Krasnaya Polyana and headed 25 miles south along the banks of the Mzymta river towards where it spills into the Black Sea, where the coastal part of his boss’s fantastic folly had been assembled.

There was only one more medal to be settled – ice hockey gold, the traditional sporting curtain-closer of the Winter Games. The Kremlin scriptwriter had pencilled in a triumph by Alexander Ovechkin’s men in the Bolshoi as the grandest of finales – one with the glorious swell of a Tchaikovsky symphony – but even President Putin cannot have it all.

He cannot have asked for much more yesterday. A bright, crisp blue sky framed the last day and, up at the Laura Centre, Russia swept the board in the final skiing event, the 50km cross-country. Alexander Legov, who had handed over flag-carrying duties to Zubkov for the opening ceremony, so concerned was he that it might affect his preparations, rushed to gold. “This is priceless,” he said. “It’s more valuable than my life.”

A cable-car ride across the valley Zubkov, persuaded to come out of retirement for these Games and give up the day job as Minister of Sport for the Irkutsk region, hurtled down the bobsleigh run to take his second gold after winning the two-man bob last week.

“The country believed in us,” said Zubkov. “But nobody believed that Russia would even be in the top three in total medals but we have won.”

The failure on the hockey rink, an embarrassing quarter-final defeat by those meddlesome Finnish neighbours, was the only major sporting glitch in Russia’s Games, a Games that for all its controversies – justified outrage over the government’s attitude towards homosexuality and equally justified fears that we have been frolicking around sport’s largest white elephant – have run without a hitch. The athletes loved them, and none more so than those in the red and white of the host nation.

 

“The friendly faces, the warm Sochi sun and the glare of the Olympic gold have broken the ice of scepticism towards the new Russia,” claimed Dmitry Kozak, Russia’s deputy prime minister, and the man who had begun the Games with a less jolly claim that he knew journalists were deliberately flooding their bathrooms to create “bad news” stories because there were secret cameras hidden in those bathrooms.

Aside from the ice hockey, there was only a sprinkling of bad sporting news for the hosts. The figure skaters Evgeni Plushenko and Julia Lipnitskaia, Russia’s 15-year-old darling, did not deliver but the unexpected triumph of Lipnitskaia’s 17-year-old team-mate Adelina Sotnikova – Russia’s new darling – glossed over the favourites’ failings. None of the failures will matter this morning as Russians savour a medal table with their country’s name heading the standings.

It marks a remarkable turnaround since Vancouver 2010, where Russia endured their worst ever Winter Olympics, trailing a lowly 11th. There was no way Putin would countenance a similar failure at home. You do not spend £30bn on building an array of stunning venues, invite the world along only for your athletes to be also-rans.

“It means gold only cost $50bn,” said Ovechkin bluntly when asked before the Games what winning the ice hockey would mean.

There is no great secret to Russia’s revival. Putin banged heads together post-Vancouver and then threw money at the problem and instructed the country’s oligarchs to do likewise. An annual budget of three billion roubles (£50m) – along with 13bn roubles (£220bn) on coaching and facilities – and plenty again in sponsorship from the oligarchs was spent on preparing Team Russia, and recruiting for Team Russia.

Andi Schmid, the Austrian brains behind Britain’s skeleton success, was offered a substantial increase in wages to switch to Russia. Many more did not turn it down. And it wasn’t only coaches who arrived.

Ahn Hyun-soo won two Olympic short-track golds for Korea in Turin in 2006 but after he fell out with his own country Russia offered him a second home and in 2011 he was fast-tracked to citizenship. On Friday night Victor An, as he is now known, won his third gold medal for Russia. Vic Wild, an American snowboarder, won two golds for Russia after earning citizenship through his wife. Tatiana Volosozhar, Ukrainian born, formed one half of a figure skating pairing that helped win two more.

Not that you could find anyone around the Fisht Stadium for last night’s closing ceremony too bothered about where the athletes they cheered marching out behind Maxim Trankov, the double gold winning figure skater, might have come from. Before it began a balalaika quartet strummed “We are the Champions” followed by the theme to Mission Impossible. This was a mission accomplished.

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