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|August 30, 2000||
Russians blessed by president and church
Russia's cash-strapped but hopeful Olympic team ditched their training equipment on Wednesday and went on a marathon tour of ceremonies designed to give them a pre-Games morale boost.
But some top Russians were absent. Swimmer Alexander Popov stayed at his Australian base to train, while tennis player Anna Kournikova has decided not to take part in the Olympics.
Others in the 500-strong squad toured Moscow, attending a Kremlin pep-talk with President Vladimir Putin, laying flowers at the grave of the Unknown Soldier and receiving the Orthodox Church's blessing a stone's throw from Russia's best stadium.
The president of Russia's Olympic Committee, Vitaly Smirnov, hinted that he thought Russia could regain in Sydney the form it last enjoyed when the country was part of the Soviet Union.
"We're not saying we're going to get more medals than any other country but I think those countries which get more than 35 gold medals -- they could be in first place, unofficially. We feel that Russia can, can, have this result," he said.
Russia won 26 gold medals at Atlanta in 1996, coming a distant second to the United States which took 44.
Since the collapse of Communism and, with it, the lavish government spending afforded to sports, Russian athletes have either emigrated or faced lean times at home.
Putin took that theme up when he addressed his country's athletes in one of the Kremlin's imperial halls.
He said the government was seriously looking at the problem of sporting talent flooding out of the country ever since sport had become "one of the highest paid professions" but invoked the patriotic spirit of their Soviet predecessors.
"They vanquished to defend the honour of the national flag," he told his audience. "We believe in every single one of you... we believe in our Olympic team... we await your victory."
TOP ATHLETES STAY AWAY
Putin came under fire last month from Anatoly Kolesov, who headed Russia's Olympic preparations, for not paying sufficient attention to top-level sport. He said Putin's late interest in the Olympic squad was "too little too late".
Popov spurned the president's invitation to leave his base in Canberra and come to Moscow. Popov, winner of the 50 and 100 metres freestyle at the 1992 and 1996 Olympics, said his training schedule did not allow the time.
In another blow to Russian national pride, the country's top female tennis player and media celebrity, Kournikova, has turned down an invitation to represent her country in Sydney, citing a busy schedule and an injury.
The financial rewards for those who do go to Sydney are slim compared with the millions of dollars paid to top professional sportsmen but good compared with the average Russian wage of around $50.
Russia's gold medallists will get a bonus of $100,000 while silver and bronze medal winners will get $20,000 and $10,000.
The future Olympians demonstrated their official uniform at the ceremony. The women wore red jackets and the men grey suits as they solemnly walked up to the Eternal Flame at the grave of the Unknown Soldier by the Kremlin walls and laid flowers.
They also visited an Orthodox Church close to Moscow's 80,000-seat Luzhniki stadium, where a priest blessed them and handed each athlete a small icon. Most of the women covered their heads in Olympic scarves and many lit candles.
"I think it will help," said Yulia Graudy, a 100 metres hurdler. "I've been to church a lot recently and it helps me."
Smirnov, standing outside the church, appeared to agree with religious sentiments which would have been frowned upon in Soviet days.
Asked for a precise forecast of Russian medals, he told reporters "it depends" and cast his eyes heavenwards.
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