Watching the unfurling, confused hysteria at the highest levels of the Kremlin over Russia’s disappointing medal count in Vancouver, you’d think Russia had lost the latest world war.
On Monday, President Dmitry Medvedev denounced unnamed “fat cats” and demanded those felines responsible for the debacle at the Winter Games step down. “Those responsible for the preparations for the Olympics should bear responsibility,” he said. “This is obvious. I think that those who are responsible for the preparation, should make the courageous decision and tender their resignations. If they don’t show such resolve, we will help them.”
Top government sports functionaries heard him loud and clear, and instantly started with the mea culpas.
By Wednesday, Leonid Tyagachev, the head of Russia’s Olympic Committee, was reported to have resigned. His flack denied the claims. Then it was reported again. His flack, yet again, denied, saying he had come down with pneumonia. Tyagachev then released a statement saying he would submit a “beautiful” resignation, and finally resigned yesterday.
Are these just the first steps in a larger campaign to change the Russian athletic-industrial complex in time for the Sochi Olympics?
Well, the budget for the Olympics may have ballooned from the $12 billion Putin announced in 2007, to $33 billion, but, if you look at the resignations — and non-resignations — it’s not looking like anything more than, surprise!, cosmetic change.
First of all, by the time Tyagachev resigned, he had already said that his organization doesn’t technically bear any of the blame for Russia’s dismal performance. And I quote: “Neither the Olympic charter nor Russian law state that the Olympic Committee bears responsibility for preparing the national team for the Olympics,” Tyagachev said. But, given the results, he said that “as an athlete, coach, administrator, and simply as a patriot of my country have decided to announce my resignation.”
Right. So if he had nothing to do with the Olympics, what does his non-governmental Olympic Committee do anyway? And, more importantly, what will his departure achieve?
Then we have the fascinating story of Vitaly Mutko, Russia’s Sports Minister. He was the one to offer the first mea culpa, though what he actually said was, “I will resign quietly, if specifically my resignation is the issue, although I don’t know whether sport will gain anything from that.”
Nice block, but Mutko is the government figure that oversees how state resources are utilized in fostering a healthy — and competitive — athletic infrastructure, the very thing that seemed to have failed the Russians the past two weeks.
So is Mutko resigning? Nope!
Mutko, you see, is an old buddy of Putin’s from their days working for the St. Petersburg mayor in the 1990s, and Putin has been less drastic in calling for heads-on-stakes than his sidekick Medvedev. And because the Sochi Olympics are Putin’s little vanity project, he gets to call the shots, and, oddly, he seems to be satisfied with only sending one sacrificial goat over the cliff.
Mutko, meanwhile, promised to reform athletics in Russia, though he told RIA Novosti that the Olympics “were not a failure.” In private, according sources, Putin gave him “a carte blanche” to do as he sees fit.
And who will replace Tyagachev? So far, all signs are pointing to former NHL player Vyacheslav Fetisov, who as head of Rossport (the Federal Agency for Physical Education and Sports), from 2004-2008 eviscerated the Olympic Committee, leaving it with mostly ceremonial duties. Rossport was closed down in 2008, and its duties passed on to the Sports Ministry…headed by Mutko.
Sochi’s going to be great, guys. Only 1,434 days left.