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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russian Team Leaps Financial Hurdles

There are few people in the world as intimidating as Russian Greco-Roman wrestler Alexander Karelin.

At 130 kilograms, with a thick neck and sunken eyes, along with the enormous muscles coursing up his legs, arms and back, he is not a man you want to anger f socially or competitively.

Famous for a move in which he tosses his opponents over his head, three-time Olympic champion Karelin has never lost an international match and is one of the few athletes going into the Summer Olympics in Sydney all but guaranteed to win gold.

Karelin is probably the biggest f literally and figuratively f of Russia's medal hopes. But the country has many more, and Moscow is predicting it will recapture the Olympic dominance its sportsmen, women and coaches enjoyed under the Soviet Union despite funding problems that mean many training facilities are crumbling or out of date.

The Russians have strong swimmers, gymnasts, runners, volleyball players, boxers, divers, shooters, and fencers.

The government has predicted the team will win 36 gold medals, 10 more than 1996 when it was a distant second to the United States' 44. The Americans, they say, will trail just behind.

If the medal count turns out to be accurate, it would be an amazing reversal for the team that was crippled after the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union, when some of its best athletes, coaches and training facilities suddenly belonged to other countries.

Some observers had predicted that the Russian sports machine would gradually decline because of cash and equipment shortages. But its athletes only appear to be getting stronger.

"It's really a surprising phenomenon," said Olympic historian Valery Shteinbakh. "The sports ethic that was instilled many years ago remains."

Aside from Karelin, the country is counting on world champion high jumper Vyacheslav Voronin; runner Svetlana Masterkova, the 1996 Olympic champion in the 800 and 1,500 meters; and world champion gymnasts Alexei Nemov and Svetlana Khorkina.

Then there are Dmitry Sautin and Yulia Pakhalina, two of the world's premier divers, and 800-meter runner Yury Borzakovsky, nicknamed "Yury the Kenyan" for his ability to challenge the East Africans who dominate the men's middle-distance events.

While Russia remains powerful in Soviet-era strengths like fencing, wrestling and gymnastics, it has also risen to dominance in other sports like synchronized swimming and handball.

Russian coaches and athletes attribute their success to the rigorous training programs developed during the Soviet era that immerse children in their sport early on. The system remains in place, while many trainers have stayed on despite abysmal salaries and equipment shortages.

"In other countries, there isn't the same quality of trainers, even though our trainers are the worst paid in the world," said Russia's head diving coach, Alexei Yevantulov. He said his team didn't have enough money to buy new springboards and will be training for two weeks in Italy before the games because of shortages at home.

One of the biggest threats to Russia's sports prominence has been the exodus of athletes abroad in search of lucrative endorsements rarely offered at home.

While some athletes are sponsored by Western companies, the only athlete with any major visibility inside Russia is the 32-year-old Karelin, whose image glowers out from juice cartons, numerous medals slung around his neck.

Karelin is also a parliamentary deputy with the pro-Kremlin Unity party, apparently picked for his image as unshakable and even-tempered but lacking any real political program.

Even Alexander Popov, the world's top male sprint swimmer, doesn't get nearly the recognition at home that he does in Australia, where he trains. He would likely be a national hero there, and making millions of dollars each year in endorsements, if he had citizenship.

"I don't want to say anything bad here, but I have a street named after me in Sydney but not in Russia," Popov said at a recent meet in Russia.

The government has moved to make sports a larger priority. President Vladimir Putin named himself the head of the committee preparing Russia's athletes for Sydney . The move likely means Russia will avoid the embarrassment of the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan, when the medal winners saw their cash bonuses delayed for months.

The cash bonuses remain unchanged this year, with the government awarding gold medal winners $50,000. Silver medal winners will get $20,000, and bronze winners $10,000.

For many athletes, the poor conditions provide an extra competitive spark.

"Yes, we don't train under proper conditions," said Voronin, who often has to wait in line to lift weights as there isn't enough equipment to go around.

"The thing that props me up is that I'm a Russian. And we have to prove that we're still stronger than anyone else. They should be afraid of us."