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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Final Testament of a Lost Sports Empire

When the first Russian team to enter the Olympics since 1912 assembled at Moscow's Poklonnaya Gora for its sendoff to the Atlanta Games last week, officials took the time to take a last bow to the monolith that was the Soviet sports system.


"These are effectively the last Games for the old Soviet team," said former long-jumper Igor Ter-Ovanesyan. "The people who will medal for us were mostly born and raised under the old regime. Atlanta will be a testament to the program we created."


Perhaps appropriately, when the 409 members left for the Summer Olympics that start Friday, they took with them a Soviet banner dear to Stalin's heart.


The red velvet pennant, accented with a silhouette of Lenin stitched in golden thread, was the same banner that went with Stalin's blessing to the 1952 Summer Games in Helsinki, Finland, where the Soviet Union made its Olympic debut and first established the gold-medal machine that became the feared U.S.S.R team.


At the height of the Cold War, the Soviets went to Helsinki in a militant mood. They even constructed an enormous scoreboard in front of their isolated camp -- lest anyone forgot the political significance of sports -- to keep a tally of medals won by themselves and their capitalist American foe.


But after a strong early showing by the gymnasts and the wrestlers, morale fell when the United States quickly caught up and overtook the Soviets in the track events. The U.S.S.R. lost that first gold medal count 40 to 22. The Americans won 76 medals overall to the Soviets' 71.


By the 1956 Melbourne Games, however, the Soviets passed the Americans by winning 37 golds to 32 for the United States and, other than in 1964 and 1968, they dominated in all Games not disrupted by boycott.


This time Moscow officials say they expect to win 37 gold medals at Atlanta, which, if achieved, would be their second-lowest output since Helsinki.


The most poignant indicator that Russia is no longer the dominant athletic power comes in the showcase Olympic event -- men's track and field -- where the Russians are not expected to win a single gold medal.


Never has a team representing the former Soviet Union failed to win at least one gold in men's athletics. At the 1980 Moscow Games, boycotted by the United States, the Soviets nearly swept the entire category.


Russian prospects have also sharply declined in another premier competition, gymnastics, which the Soviets usually dominated with occasional rivalry from Romania and China.


The Soviet women have won every Olympic gymnastics team gold medal since 1952 with the exception of 1984 when they boycotted the Olympics in Los Angeles.


This year Russia has only one gold-medal favorite, balance beam specialist Dina Kochetkova.


Some of the problems arise from the breakup of the Soviet squad into teams representing 15 different nations, but in men's track and field the weakness of the former Soviet Union is across the board with only Ukraine's world-record pole vaulter Sergei Bubka favored for the gold.


"On the other hand, these will be our most democratic games, if you will," said Ter-Ovanesyan, who was head of the Unified Team's athletics committee for the 1992 Barcelona Games.


"In track we'll be bringing athletes who would have never made it on the Soviet team." The new, less rigorous selection process in track and field means that for the first time, Russia will field athletes who are not expected to vie for medals but will compete to gain international experience for the future.


"The old will get the medals," Ter-Ovanesyan said. "But Atlanta will also tell us where the new Russia stands."


Ter-Ovanesyan, the man who jumped after American Bob Beamon made the single greatest statement in athletics history by flying 8.90 meters to obliterate the long-jump record at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968, takes credit for discovering Bubka in 1983.


Then a scrawny 19-year-old from Donetsk, he was inserted at the last minute on the Soviet team by coach Ter-Ovanesyan for the Helsinki World Championships. Bubka claimed gold and has never looked back, winning all five gold medals in pole vaulting at the world championships.


Bubka, now 32, won gold for the last Soviet team in the 1988 Seoul Games, but shocked the world when he failed to clear a height at the 1992 Games. He redeemed himself last year, winning the world championship, and is still considered one of the two most established stars from the old Soviet athletic system.


The other is Russia's Irina Privalova, 28, Europe's premier sprinter and Russia's most recognized track and field figure.


Perhaps she is an apt representative of the state of the sport in Russia, having been a three-time world indoor sprint champion, but the athletic world thinks she stands no chance of winning gold in Atlanta since she is up against 1995 world champions Gwen Torrence of the United Statesand Merlene Ottey of Jamaica.


Of course, Privalova's coach, Vladimir Parashuk, disagrees. "Irina is in the form of her life. She has dedicated this whole year to training and I think she will disappoint a lot of Americans."


But Privalova has not won a race this year, not even in Russia's Olympic trials.


The Russian Olympic Committee did not pull the estimate of 37 gold medals out of a hat. The number has been carefully calculated by a selection process designed to get the most bang for the buck. The centralized empire gone, every ruble must be well spent.


"Our first decision was to not send a baseball team," said Anatoly Kolesov, vice president of the Russian Olympic Committee. "We still want to win more Olympic Sports Committee. Gone are the trade unions, which according to Kolesov accounted for half of the Soviet sports financing, and the old sports lottery that helped fund the team.


The cryptic alcohol and tobacco import-export company known as the National Sports Fund now stands in their place, and Kolesov says approximately half of the team funding comes from the state budget through the fund.


The remainder comes from what is left of the old trade unions, from public donations and the Reebok sportswear company, which has outfitted the Russian team in its trademark jump suits for Atlanta.


"We aren't as organized about public funding as the West is," Kolesov says. "In 1978, the U.S. created a tax write-off for Olympic donations. We are still far away from that."


The teams from the former republics have been hit even harder by the breakup of the Soviet regime. "One of the difficulties for the Russian team in 1992 was that we had to finance teams from the new republics," says Kolesov. "They obviously couldn't fend for themselves."


And many of them still can't. Belarus did manage to find an official sponsor to its 158-member team, the Atlanta-based Coca Cola company, which is a major Olympic sponsor. Coke furnished Belarussian athletes with sportswear and equipment.


Teams with less luck have been forced to play on Russia's weakest spot -- lack of training facilities -- as a source of sports income.


Russia has only a dilapidated training base in the Moscow-region city of Podolsk and a recently created track field in St. Petersburg, site to last month's Olympic-qualifying meet where slow times were often blamed on the track.


The empire has left behind sports complexes in Minsk and Kiev, a high-altitude training center in Armenia, a fencing and cycling complex in Lithuania, one rowing facility in Tallinn and another in Azerbaijan, a high-altitude and winter-months training site in Sukhumi, in Georgia's breakaway Abkhazia region, which has been demolished by war, and a cycling venue in Tajikistan.


To the benefit of the former republics, Russia had to rent many of these sites to prepare for Atlanta.


Many other athletes opted to train abroad. The swim team went to Australia.


"This has been our sport's greatest tragedy," said Parashuk, Privolova's coach.


Ter-Ovanesyan, musing over the glory days of old when he was a star, said sadly, "So much remains to be rebuilt."