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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia Reviving Youth Games

KAZAN -- It was almost like the old days of the Soviet Union.

Banners raised aloft, thousands of young athletes marched in serried ranks past the grandstand at Kazan's Central Stadium as VIPs and government officials looked on in approval.

The opening ceremony of the first all-Russian Youth Spartakiad, held in this ancient city on the Volga River this month, resembled the choreographed May Day holidays of not-so-distant communist times.

The reborn Spartakiad was the brainchild of State Sports Committee head Vyacheslav Fetisov, who has been trying hard to revive the country's sports glory since being appointed to his post in April of last year.

Dismayed by Russia's recent setbacks in major international competitions, including a dismal showing at last year's Salt Lake City Olympics, Fetisov began by bringing back the old government-supported system of sports infrastructure.

"This is the first step in the right direction," he told the media on the eve of the Olympic-style multi-sport extravaganza, which was reminiscent of the Soviet era of mass sporting events.

"Thousands of young athletes competing here make up the base of a massive pyramid, on top of which you have world and Olympic champions. And the broader the base, the higher the pyramid."

Last year, at Fetisov's urging, President Vladimir Putin established a presidential commission to give sport a top priority.

Putin, himself a former judo black-belt and an avid Alpine skier, also introduced presidential stipends for thousands of gifted young athletes to help in their Olympic preparations.

The old Spartakiad, held every four years until it ceased to exist in the mid-1980s, served for decades as a launching pad for the country's future Olympians.

Fetisov pointed to the first World Youth Games, held in Moscow five years ago, as a good example of the value of such events.

"They helped us discover many outstanding athletes," he said, naming 800 meters runner Yury Borzakovsky, pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva, high jumper Marina Kuptsova, gymnast Alina Kabayeva, soccer player Marat Izmailov and basketball player Andrei Kirilenko, who plays for the NBA's Utah Jazz.

"Some of them have since gone on to become world champions, others play for various national teams, but all first became known during the youth Olympics in 1998.

"I have no doubt that these competitions will also feature their share of our future champions," added the former ice hockey great.

Fetisov, who captained the mighty Soviet Union hockey team for almost two decades, also had a few words for the athletes.

"I was a professional sportsman for 24 years, but I started my career by playing in tournaments like this," he told 6,000 high school participants who marched at the opening ceremony.

"Not all of you will go on to become world or Olympic champions, but I'm sure you will benefit from competing here and being athletes for the rest of your lives."

Nearly 12,000 athletes, aged 14 to 17 and representing all of the country's 89 regions, converged on Kazan and neighboring Saratov in the first two weeks of September to compete in 34 different sports.

Kazan, which is the capital of the Tatarstan republic and celebrates its 1,000th anniversary in 2005, was chosen to stage the competition, and it spared no expense in housing, feeding and entertaining the athletes, coaches and officials.

"It's an honor for us to host the first such event, as we have tried long and hard to persuade Russian sports leaders to bring the games to Kazan," said Marat Bariyev, the republic's sports minister.

Bariyev said his ministry had spent 54 million rubles ($1.77 million) on preparations, with the State Sports Committee throwing in another 41 million rubles ($1.33 million).

"But we think this is money well spent," he said. "I'm sure the games will leave a great legacy for thousands of young kids in our city, for our sports, for the whole [Tatar] republic.

"As the city prepares to celebrate its anniversary, we're already looking to the future, to our new millennium."

While a majority of the athletes who competed in the games were far from being household names even in their own regions, Fetisov said he was optimistic about the Spartakiad's future.

The success of the inaugural competition has prompted Russian sports chiefs to consider adding a winter equivalent early next year.

"If someone had asked me if it was all worth the money and effort that we put into these games, my answer would be a resounding 'yes,'" Fetisov said.

"And we plan to conduct a formal bidding process among interested Russian cities for the right to host the winter Spartakiad in the very near future."."