Russia's Olympic Choke Job

The Russian Olympic machine broke down in Vancouver, leaving Moscow in a state of despair. Michael Idov on the demise of a sporting superpower.

02.26.10 9:07 PM ET

I'm writing this from a land defeated, angry, hurt, questioning its very self, and ready to erupt in chaotic unrest; in other words, it's Wednesday in Russia. The current drag on the national mood, however, has nothing to do with the Kremlin's empty promises of liberalization or the cratered economy. It's Russia's performance in Vancouver. I had never seen a country take a lackluster showing at a Winter Olympics so dramatically.

To fully feel the depth of the Russian humiliation, you would have to have witnessed the torque of its rev-up. There were the usual signs, of course: Evgeni Plushenko's face hawked a new perfume from bus stops while McDonalds claimed that "By buying a Big Mac, you help the Olympic cause." (Russian ad copy tends to get right to the point.) But then there was the weirder stuff. The prayers for the athletes, the public blessing from the Patriarch. The government-issue billboards along Moscow's roads, addressing the Olympians on behalf of the nation itself: They read, simply, Rodnye vy nashi, an untranslatable expression of histrionic endearment roughly renderable as "Oh You Our Precious Ones."

By the fourth day, the pundit conversation was not about whether heads would roll in the Kremlin, but whose in particular.

Then it all came crashing down. A Russian or Soviet pair failed to win the gold in figure skating for the first time since 1964. Plushenko got silver. Skiers choked. Ice dancers introduced a brownface "aboriginal" routine that drew embarrassed giggles (and couldn't help but bring to mind the Russian media's icky habit of referring to the Winter Games as "the White Olympics"). By the fourth day, the pundit conversation was not about whether heads would roll in the Kremlin, but whose in particular.

The shortage of gold brought out the conspiracy theorist in everyone. One caller on the Echo of Moscow radio station advanced the hopeful theory that Russia was strategically losing to lower expectations for Sochi in 2014, when it would proceed to pulverize everyone on home turf. The ice dancers were understood to have fallen victim to the plague of "political correctness." Plushenko's loss—but he did a quadruple lutz!—was chalked up to the handiwork of Western enemies. Plushenko himself, an amusingly sore loser, played along by all-but-gay-baiting the Americans. ("This is a men's competition, not ice dancing.")

His Web site didn't help matters: By February 23, it claimed that the athlete had taken "Silver of Salt Lake, Gold of Torino, Platinum of Vancouver," complete with a realistic mockup of a nonexistent platinum medal. On the same day, I walked along the Tverskaya Street to come upon the politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the last four Russian rulers' perennial Useful Idiot, who hasn't yet met a populist cause he didn't try to claim. Zhirinovsky was giving a speech in honor of Russia's Army Day. Of all his vows to make Russia "respected, loved and, yes, a little bit feared," the one that drew the loudest applause was the promise to "protect our athletes from the Olympic Mafia."

Denial seemed to take only at the top, however. On the street level, the anger was turning on athletes themselves. Overfed celebrities, muttered the cabbies before switching their receivers to Radio Chanson. Pathetic goons. To the construction site with you—let's see you do some real work. YouTube videos that showed the Moscow delegation partying at the opulent Russian House in the Olympic Village drew almost uniform disgust in the comments: How can you dance when a tragedy is unfolding?

After the 3-7 hockey loss to the Canadians, which knocked the Russians out of the competition, the calls for bureaucrat heads built to a crescendo. In response, the press secretary for the Russian Olympic Committee lashed out at the athletes in a manner rarely heard from press secretaries: "They got everything but breakfast in bed, and would get that too if they asked for it. They just didn't feel like making an effort! What do they care? Their patriotism is measured in contracts. They are divas, princes, Hummers among subcompacts."

By February 25, Russia was fifth in the overall medal count, which would be a respectable result for just about anyone. And yet the sentiment didn't improve. (Or, as Snob Magazine put it in an online article entitled "Plushenko Didn't Get the Gold. Russia Has Failed," the Olympics had "turned the skeptics into pessimists, and pessimists into paranoiacs.") The public mood was crushed but also weirdly relieved, almost masochistic, as if a so-so showing in some winter sports had somehow certified the darkest doubts everyone was already nursing about the country as a whole.

The reasons for such emotional whiplash are not hard to divine. For more than six years now, Russians have been told again and again that their country, per media catchphrase, "is getting up off its knees." No more unipolar world, no more patronizing lectures from the Americans.

Western journalists writing about Russia still tend to draw the arc of the prickly national temperament from the Soviet deprivations to the sudden onrush of wild inequality that followed, but at this point, it's a fallacy. The arc actually starts in 1991: The current brand of Russian surliness is fed by a memory of how naively it had worshipped the West in the 1990s, and how weak it was made to feel in return. The Soviet years barely figure into this equation, or figure as a positive memory. After all, this was the time when the country was taken seriously. The time when it produced, if not wearable trousers, then at least flyable rockets—and, yes, unbeatable Olympians.

In the last few years, however, more and more people have begun to suspect that this remembered superiority had not been revived by Putin, contrary to the official narrative, but had in fact been running on Soviet fumes all along. These fumes are thinning out now. Nowhere is it more obvious than in the world of sports: Plushenko, to stick to one example, is 27—old enough to be a product of the Soviet training machine—and has no obvious heir. The Vancouver performance thus becomes a crystal-clear metaphor for every other promise of the Putin era. It confirms Moscow's worst fear, which is that it is no longer fearsome. That the glory days are well and truly behind. Or, as one Russian blogger sardonically put it, "It seems we've been playing better on our knees."

Michael Idov is a contributing editor at New York magazine and has covered Russia for The New Republic. His debut novel, Ground Up, has just been released.