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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kamchatka Harks Back to Sporting Glory

PETROPAVLOVSK-KAMCHATSKY -- To the outside world, the remote Kamchatka peninsula gained renown as a dumping ground for Russians sent into exile, but locals prefer to think of the area's sporting prowess.

At least as it was in the Soviet era.

Kamchatka, a vast but sparsely populated tongue of land extending far into the north Pacific, boasted Alpine and cross-country skiing champions from communist times.

Now its officials say they have no money or infrastructure, blaming Moscow -- more than 7,000 kilometers and nine time zones to the west -- for their misfortune.

Twice as big as Britain, Kamchatka is home to unspoiled nature -- picturesque lakes, mountain streams, thermal springs, geysers and volcanoes -- a perfect breeding ground for skiers.

Kamchatka native Varvara Zelenskaya was a dominant force on Alpine skiing's World Cup circuit in the 1990s, with several downhill victories to her credit. Yelena Vyalbe from nearby Magadan won a record 14 world titles and numerous Olympic medals in cross-country over the last decade.

But since the collapse of the state-sponsored sports system, the remote region has been fighting a losing battle to keep its infrastructure up to date in the face of ever rising costs.

"The cost of maintaining elite athletes and teams is almost three times higher here because we're that far away from the rest of Russia," Sergei Pivovarov, chairman of the Kamchatka state sports committee, said.

"In Soviet times we used to have professional or semi-pro clubs in almost every team sport -- like football, basketball, volleyball, ice hockey -- competing nationwide on various levels.

"Now we have none, just some amateur level teams playing local tournaments."

Former Alpine skiing coach Nikolai Balakhovsky added: "A decade ago, almost the entire Russian national team in Alpine skiing was made up of Kamchatka natives. Now there are none."

Moscow, he said, had forgotten about the peninsula.

"When President Putin, an avid Alpine skier, first visited Kamchatka in 2000, he promised our region some $5 million in state funds to build a top class Alpine center here," said Balakhovsky, who now heads the local youth skiing academy.

"It's 2005 and we're still waiting. I'm sure the money, intended for Kamchatka, was probably stolen or diverted elsewhere by Moscow bureaucrats, and we'll never get it."

Kamchatka's main problem lies in being stuck on the fringes of the world's largest country, far away from the capital's political establishment where most key decisions are taken.

Locals refer to the rest of Russia as the "mainland."

"Being so far away from Moscow and other main cities greatly affects our sports," Pivovarov said.

"Take Alpine and cross-country skiing for example. Most of the races on the World Cup circuit take place in western Europe, so our guys must cross the whole Euro-Asian continent, that is 11-12 time zones, back and forth.

"No one can endure such traveling, let alone compete with the world's elite for the whole season. No wonder most of our top athletes leave Kamchatka and take up residence in Moscow or in western Russia as soon as they get such offers.

"We're more oriented toward Japan, China and South Korea than mainland Russia," Pivovarov added.

"The other big problem is money. The fishing industry makes up more than 75 percent of our economy, so if our fishermen don't have a good year, we all suffer because our sport infrastructure can only survive on state funds."

Neighboring Chukotka solved most of its financial problems by turning to Roman Abramovich, the billionaire owner of English Premier League club Chelsea.

Since being elected Chukotka governor, the oil tycoon has helped build schools, hospitals and sports centers there.

But Kamchatka's governor, Mikhail Mashkovtsev, a hard-line communist, balked at the idea of inviting "oligarchs" -- businessmen who made fortunes overnight in the 1990s sell-offs of state industries -- to help run the region's economy.

Asked by Reuters if he would welcome a wealthy businessman on board, Mashkovtsev snapped: "I don't trade people or jobs."

Mashkovtsev said two of his main rivals spent well over $20 million on their campaigns, but he was still overwhelmingly re-elected governor for another four-year term in December.

"I think we can do the job here ourselves," he said.

Despite the obvious shortcomings, sports officials hope that the steady stream of local talent would not dry out.

"These youngsters are our future," Pivovarov said, pointing across to several hundred cross-country skiers about to compete at the regional trials of the all-Russian youth championships.

"Who knows, we could see some of them in the Olympics, if not next year in Turin, then in Vancouver in 2010.

"Hopefully, when they grow up we'll have better sports infrastructure here for them to continue their Olympic dreams."