Nation of Champions Starts in the Courtyard

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With the Olympic Games over, we can now take a look at whether Russia achieved the status of athletic superpower.

Unfortunately, our athletes did not fulfill the medals quota set by the president of the Russian Olympic Committee, Leonid Tyagachyov. Russia's track and field athletes were the only ones to meet the quota, largely because a modern stadium was built in Irkutsk for them to train in before the games so they could adapt to the Beijing time zone.

This raises the question of the connection between the country's third-place finish at the Olympic Games and the low level of support for athletics and fitness among the general population. As before, most bureaucrats who oversee the country's athletics sector believe that there is almost no connection. They are convinced that the government can create national Olympic champions by recruiting highly paid trainers and by investing a lot of money in a few select athletes and teams.

This is a flawed approach. Widespread involvement in sports at all levels is the best way to breed future champions. Although the government indeed might be able to find a handful of talented athletes among the few good sports programs scattered around the country, for a better selection, athletic programs need to be instituted nationwide, and they should include a full range of sports. Parents should want to involve their children in them -- not because they want them to become future Olympic champions, but because it is a healthy activity in and of itself.

In Britain, a country with a population less than half that of Russia, you cannot find a school without an diverse sports program that goes far beyond soccer and rugby.

It is the same in the United States, where sports long ago became an integral part of popular culture. I remember visiting a large sports complex at Ohio State University. It had a stadium comparable in size to Moscow's Luzhniki stadium. At the university's numerous athletic facilities, I saw hundreds of students working out on various fitness machines, running on the track, swimming in three different pools, playing tennis on a dozen courts and playing soccer on three separate fields. University sports programs are also ideal breeding grounds for future champions. What's more, no U.S. tennis champion has ever come to Russia to train, although Russia's champions often train in the United States.

I was also impressed after my visit to Beijing, where I saw hundreds of thousands of people doing calisthenics in the parks, playing ping-pong or badminton and running. This was the nation's breeding ground for China's first-place finish in the Olympics.

In Russia, people who want to play a sport run into huge difficulties because there are so few public athletic facilities available. Although many private health clubs have opened in the last few years, they are hardly affordable to Russia's middle and lower classes.

As a result, the overwhelming majority of young Russians do not have the athletic opportunities that even the poorest American children enjoy. When Russian teenagers hang out in their courtyards looking for recreation, they are limited for the most part to listening to music, smoking and drinking beer together. They have to look very hard to find even a rundown outdoor basketball court within 2 kilometers of their home.

As long as this is the situation in courtyards across the country, we will never become a healthy nation -- not to mention an athletic superpower.

Georgy Bovt is a political analyst and hosts a radio program on City-FM.