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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

HUSTLING FOR The GOLD

For an athlete, ten years can be a generation in playing time. For Russian sports stars, the past decade has been more like a lifetime, as state backing has vanished and athletes have been left to hustle for financial support.


Yelena Shevchenko, a member of the Soviet Union's winning 1988 Olympic gymnastics team, was caught in the demise of the Soviet sports system. Had she vaulted her way to fame in the 1970s, like ice hockey star Valery Vasilyev, the Soviet system that trained her would have rewarded her handsomely. Had she reaped a gold medal at last summer's Olympics, like swimmer Yevgeny Sadovy, she might have been able to invest her prize money or profits from commercial endorsements to assure her future.


Like athletes in the west, Russia's sports stars have been left to find financial support on their own. But the lack of state funding has also meant freedom from rigid stale control. For those who reach the top in limelight sports such as ice hockey and tennis, an international career and income beyond their wildest dreams is now a possibility.


Shevchenko, 21, is struggling to survive as a trainer for the next generation of Russian gymnasts. Next month, she is supposed to go to summer gymnastics camp, just as she has done every year since she was four. But this time, she will have to pay the camp 100, 000 rubles for room and board while she trains young gymnasts for two months. The system that transformed Shevchenko from a talented child into a world-class athlete cannot afford to pay her way.


Shevchenko's situation is symptomatic of the problems caused by the collapse of the Soviet sports system that churned out Olympic and world champions at a stunning rate. Throughout the 1970s and most of the 1980s, athletes were provided with everything they needed to focus solely on their sport. But as Russia begins grappling with the free-market system, funding for athletics has dried up. Most of the sports schools and camps that turned talented children into trained athletes have closed; some of the ones that are still operating are open only to children whose parents can afford to pay.


Shevchenko, who is finishing her degree at the Institute of Physical Culture, works six days a week at Moscow's Central Sports Club of the Army (CSKA). Her students are eager to follow in her footsteps and join the ranks of the Russian gymnasts who have enchanted the world with their athletic prowess. But they are unlikely to follow Shevchenko's path. If one of Shevchenko's budding gymnasts cannot afford to attend the summer sports camp, she will fall behind her peers in training and likely be forced out of the program.


"The government was always the main sponsor of the sports schools", said Dmitry Filipchenko, a sports reporter for Komsomolskaya Pravda. "But because of the new market reforms, they have stopped. At Dinamo, the biggest sports club, 50 percent of the schools for children have simply closed. These days sports depends on money, not so much at the top level of sports, but with the clubs and schools".


If not for the state-supported sports schools, it is unlikely that Yevgeny Sadovy, 20, would have overcome obstacles to rise to the pinnacle of the swimming world during the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.


Five years ago, Sadovy almost quit swimming altogether after injuring tendons in both his legs and taking a greater interest in motorcycles. But when his passion for the sport returned, he was able to return to serious swimming because he was already enrolled at the School of the Olympic Reserve in Volgograd, a special institute to train athletes.


The school is still operating, primarily because it has turned out some of the world's greatest swimmers. In Barcelona, Sadovy won three gold medals. He received $3, 000 for each medal, thanks to contributions to the Russian Olympic Committee from corporate sponsors.


Sadovy's swimming coach, Viktor Avdiyenko, is already wrestling with Sadovy's uncertain future by investing his young prodigy's prize money in Russian firms, something that was not possible under the old Soviet system.


"We are doing our best to invest the money he wins in share companies so that he will have a secure future", Avdiyenko said.


In stark contrast to today's athletes is Valery Vasilyev, a former standout hockey defenseman for Dinamo Moscow and a star on the Soviet national team in the 1970s. Vasilyev played during the height of the Soviet system, when the state paid for everything - transportation, accommodation, equipment, stadium rental. By 1983, Vasilyev, 43, had played on eight world championship teams as well as two Olympic gold medal winners.


Raised in Gorky, now called Nizhny Novgorod, Vasilyev joined Dinamo Moscow when he was 16 years old. By the time he was 19, he was already a regular on the Soviet national team and had been given an apartment and a car by Dinamo from a special fund set up by the Moscow City Council to provide housing for star athletes.


But Vasilyev, who used to dream about playing in North America's National Hockey League, is practical about the changes plaguing sports and the country in general. He believes that the new freedoms foster new opportunities and challenges.


"It is much better now than when I played", Vasilyev said. "People need to be active. If they need a sponsor then they must find one. Dinamo found Samsung, which provides different things like refrigerators and televisions as well as financing training and prize funds for competitions".


Vasilyev also now has the previously unheard of possibility of coaching abroad and earning independent wealth through ice hockey. He coached for two and a half years in Germany, guiding his club to promotion to the top league. Now, he says he would like to try coaching in the NHL. After last month's World Ice Hockey Championships in Munich, Vasily Tikhonov, son of the legendary coach Viktor Tikhonov, became the first coach to accept a job in the NHL.


For stars like Sadovy and Vasilyev, today's circumstances present advantages unimaginable even five years ago. Formerly, athletes were tightly controlled and valuable hard-currency prizes disappeared into the state bureaucracy. Now athletes have the chance to test their worth on the world market and sign contracts with foreign clubs.


Hockey and soccer players are the most obvious example of athletes taking advantage of the new freedoms. Over 75 players are currently playing in the NHL and European hockey leagues.


Former Soviet stars such as the Ukrainian pole vaulter Sergei Bubka and the Russian sprinter Irina Privalova have found great success on the track and field circuit. Bubka has even opened a training center in Germany and signed a lucrative endorsement contract with the sports apparel company Nike.


"Now, a sportsman can express himself in any capacity", Vasilyev said. "He is free to make contracts and choose which club he wants. Before it was only orders and someone sitting and controlling you. They were simply stealing from sportsmen's pockets".


In 1972, the Soviet hockey team was paid $3 million for a series against the NHL all-stars in which the visitors finally silenced the critics that suggested Soviet hockey was not on par with the North American professionals. Yet barely any of the money went to the athletes.


"We were paid $3 million for three games", Vasilyev said. "Yet, each player only received $500. The question is where did the rest of the money go? It went to the state sports committee and the bureaucrats".


While athletes who are talented enough to play or compete for the big money of western competitions benefit most from the collapse of the old system, it leaves people such as Shevchenko and her gymnasts in a difficult situation that is eroding the quality of Russian sports.


"It is very hard to find sponsors for gymnastics", said Shevchenko, who doesn't know where she will find the money to cover her room and board at the summer training camp. "It is easier among games like soccer and hockey because there are more fans".


Anatoly Kolesov, a deputy director for preparing the Russian team for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, believes that Russia can fill the former Soviet Union's giant shoes as a sports powerhouse. However, he says government support will be essential to revitalize the ailing system. Although he recognizes that complete state support is not a reasonable expectation, he says some basic needs should be met by the government.


"The system of sports schools was one of the best achievements of Soviet sports society", Kolesov said. "We have a chance to capture the top places at the coming Olympics, but time flies and if the state does nothing then we will lose this chance. Our sports have a great future, but we must improve what we already have and not destroy it".


Reflecting on what is happening in Russian sports, Shevchenko said the demise is already underway.


"The level of our athletes is declining", she said. "If before Russian gymnasts were one head higher than the rest of the gymnasts in the world, now we are on the same level. It will be very hard to get back, especially if there is no money".