August 17, 2000


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Broke Russia dreams of Olympics riches

Gennady Fyodorov in Moscow

Although hampered by a chronic shortage of cash, Russia still hopes next month to win the country's biggest haul of Olympic medals since the Soviet days.

"I think we are very capable of winning between 35 and 37 gold medals," said Anatoly Kolesov, who headed Russia's Olympic preparations for the Sydney Games.

"And I didn't pull these numbers out of the air. They are based on our real assessment."

With names like Alexander Popov and Alexander Karelin, Svetlana Khorkina and Svetlana Masterkova in their 500-strong Olympic squad, the Russians might live up to the hopes of the world's largest country, whose sporting prowess is the main reminder of its superpower days.

Russia will need some great performances to improve on the 26 gold medals they had won four years ago in Atlanta while finishing a distant second to the host nation.

Popov, who turns 29 in November, leads the resurgent swimming team in Sydney, where he will try to become the first male swimmer to win an event at three consecutive Olympics.

This year, he has showed his younger rivals he is back to the form which helped him to claim both the 50 and 100 metres freestyle in the 1992 and '96 Games.

He smashed a 10-year-old world record in the 50 at the Russian national championships in June, then went on to win four golds at the European championships in Helsinki two weeks later.

The Russians also pin medal hopes on the new wave of talented swimmers like Dmitry Kamornikov and Anatoly Polyakov.

Kamornikov, who turned 19 a month ago, won the European 200 metres breaststroke title in impressive fashion while Polyakov, 20, took over from duel 1996 Olympic champion Denis Pankratov as Russia's new butterfly king after claiming the European 200 metres crown.

"We're bringing our youngest team ever to Sydney, but take my word, we'll surprise a few people there," Russia head coach Viktor Avdeenko said.

Karelin hopes to go one better than Popov and become the first Greco-Roman or freestyle wrestler in Olympic history to win four successive gold medals.

The 130-kg heavyweight giant, who will turn 33 in Sydney, also has the unique distinction of carrying the flag for three different countries at three Olympic opening ceremonies.

He first represented the Soviet Union in 1988 in Seoul, then the Commonwealth of Independent States in 1992 in Barcelona and finally the Russian Federation in Atlanta four years later.

"I know the weight of the nation is on my shoulders but I should be used to it by now," said Karelin, who has not lost a single bout since 1987. Khorkina, who leads the powerful gymnastics team, may be dwarfed by Karelin's stature, but the graceful blonde is second to none when it comes to competitive spirit.

Khorkina, 21, who has won numerous world, European and Olympic titles, will be gunning for the women's over-all crown, the only medal she is missing from her trophy case.

"I've done everything in gymnastics and winning the over-all title in Sydney would be a nice way to go out," she said.

As for Masterkova, who has been slowed down by injuries in both ankles in the last two years, the double Olympic champion in the 800 and 1,500 metres just wants to be healthy enough to have a shot at a medal.

She was forced to abandon the 800 metres in Sydney tor concentrate on the 1,500.

In athletics, the Russians also have world champions Vyacheslav Voronin in the high jump, Maxim Tarasov in the pole vault and Ilya Markov in the 20 km walk, as well as former world sprint champion Irina Privalova, who this season switched to running the 400 metres hurdles.

One familiar Russian face, however, will be missing in Sydney after Anna Kournikova, Russia's top female tennis player, has turned down a chance to represent her country at the Olympics, citing a scheduling problem and the risk of injury.

Russia's Olympic preparations were also slowed down by huge financial problems that had plagued the country's athletic elite since the collapse of the communism at the end of 1991.

It even prompted Kolesov to hit out at President Vladimir Putin for not paying sufficient attention to top-level sports, criticism which would have been unknown in the old days.

Kolesov was particularly upset with the failure to re-build the Olympic training centre in the Pacific port of Vladivostok, which the Russians planned to use because it is in the same time zone as Sydney.

"It's a short-sighted politics of our government as well as our top sports organisations to spend money by training abroad rather than building our own training centres to be used by many of our athletes," Kolesov told Reuters.

The government, however, has found the money to offer its teams $50,000, $20,000 and $10,000 respectively for a gold, silver and bronze with the Olympic Committee throwing an extra $50,000 to the individual winners for a good measure.

Kolesov said that Putin also planned to provide a morale boost by presiding at the ceremonial Russian Olympic send-off to Sydney in early September at Moscow's Victory Park, the symbol of the country's greatest military victory in the second world war.

Despite Russia's shortcomings, Kolesov warned other top nations against underestimating his team.

"I guarantee you, the Americans and everyone else will be in for a great fight," he said.

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