Pride, Cash Drive Ex-Soviet Athletes

Eight years ago, the Soviet Union dominated the Seoul Olympic games, winning nearly 40 more medals than the United States on the strength of the world's biggest and best-funded national sports machine.

Now that machine is gone, and sports experts are still trying to measure the impact.

As of Wednesday, after a week and a half of competition at the Atlanta games, the countries of the former Soviet Union had a combined medal total of 75, or nine more than the 66 held by the first-place United States team, although the United States are likely to overtake in the last days of the Games.

Do the successes of the individual countries of the former Soviet Union in Atlanta prove that it is talent, rather than money and organization, that wins out?

"On some level, we miss the Soviet Union, because it gave us a greater talent pool," said Alexander Davidson, director of the Russian Basketball Federation. "But now we have young people who are finding different motivations to win."

Some of those new motivations are financial. Izvestia reported Wednesday that the Latvian Department of Sports has offered a $400,000 reward to the athlete who brings Latvia its first gold medal. Furthermore, Kyrgyzstan has offered set awards for medals -- $20,000 for a gold, $15,000 for a silver, $10,000 for bronze.

Neither of those countries has brought home a medal in the '96 Olympics. But for the Latvian team, the fact of its independent participation in the Olympics is reward enough.

"No question, there's more motivation now," Latvian Sports Department President Einars Fogelis told Izvestia. "The important thing is that we finally have the opportunity to show what we are capable of."

National and ethnic pride has clearly been a factor in the ex-Soviet successes up to date. One Russian athlete, boxer Raimkul Malakhbekov, fights wearing a uniform embossed with the name of his home republic of Kalmykia. Unknown four years ago, he advanced Tuesday to the semifinals of the 54-kilogram category, where he is guaranteed at least a bronze medal.

In 1992, the former Soviet countries competed under several different banners. Five of them -- Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan -- combined under the title of "Unified team," a group that topped the Olympic medal table with 112. The remaining countries entered under their own flags; three won medals.

In terms of medal count, the combined performance of the former Soviet countries is now only slightly off their 1992 pace, when they bested the United States by 11 medals.

But their current nine-medal advantage is likely to shrink to nothing in the later stages of the games, when a host of events dominated by the United States, particularly in team sports and in track and field, are held.

The ex-Soviet teams, on the other hand, have already finished up the bulk of competition in their traditional medal-harvesting events, in particular swimming, weightlifting, and gymnastics.

Davidson said the slight drop in performance is not a result of poor funding, but a drop in population.

"We were hurt worst in team sports, where our teams were simply eliminated by border changes," he said, noting that the Russian men's basketball team failed to qualify for the Olympics just eight years after the Soviet team won the gold.

"If you can build a team out of athletes from 15 countries rather than one, then you simply have a much better numerical chance of succeeding."

Valery Petrosian, a deputy director of the Russian Boxing Federation, whose team is performing well in the Olympics, said money and organization wasn't the factor it was made out to be.

"Good athletes will always perform well, regardless of how good their shoes are," he said. "If you want to fight, you'll fight. If you're tough, you'll win. That's that."