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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Olympic Team Hopes for Fair Shot at Medals

It was 50 years ago this month that the Soviet Union swept to victory in its first Winter Olympics in the Italian Alpine resort of Cortina d'Ampezzo, immediately establishing itself as a winter sports powerhouse.

But with the collapse of the Soviet sports machine and persecution fears stemming from the controversy-ridden 2002 Salt Lake City Games, few expect a triumphal return to the Italian slopes and ice rinks as Russian athletes begin their medals quest this Saturday at the 20th Winter Games in Turin.

Russia is sending a total of 178 athletes to compete in the 15 Winter Olympic disciplines, but sports officials have been hedging their medal expectations after the trauma of four years ago. In Salt Lake City, Russian athletes won just five gold and 13 medals overall to finish fifth in the medals table -- the worst Russian performance since the 1956 Soviet debut.

The Salt Lake City Games also plunged the Olympic movement into its worst crisis since the Cold War, with an avalanche of protest from every corner of Russian society damning the perceived bias against Russian athletes. President Vladimir Putin characterized the 2002 Games as "a flop," and said North American athletes received "a clear advantage," while the Orthodox Church called the Games unfair and protests were held outside the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.

Amid the acrimony at Salt Lake City, Russian officials threatened to mount a boycott and Russian Olympic Committee head Leonid Tyagachyov accused IOC officials of singling out an unfair number of Russian athletes for drug tests.

Vyacheslav Fetisov, the head of the Federal Agency for Physical Culture and Sports and head coach of the 2002 Olympic hockey team, has predicted that this time Russia will capture around 25 medals, and called seven gold medals a realistic goal.

The United States captured a total of 34 medals to win the overall medal count in 2002.

Tyagachyov has been more reserved in his predictions for Turin, telling reporters last month that the team could "theoretically" compete for 25 medals.

"But what color they will be depends on mere seconds and judging," Tyagachyov said.

Gold medal hopes largely rest on the sports that the Soviet Union traditionally excelled at, including hockey, the biathlon and figure skating.

Irina Slutskaya and Yevgeny Plushenko, neither of whom has won Olympic gold in their illustrious careers, appear primed to lead Russia to sweep the four figure-skating events. Both are favorites in the singles events, while World and European champions Tatyana Totmyanina and Maxim Marinin are expected to excel in the pairs and Tatyana Navka and Roman Kostomarov are the favorites to capture the ice dance title.

Figure skating was at the center of the Salt Lake City judging scandal. French judge Marie-Reine Le Gougne said she had been pressured to underscore Canadian duo Jamie Sale and David Pelletier, who were beaten in the pairs by Russia's Yelena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze. After an intense populist media campaign across North America, IOC officials awarded the Canadians duplicate gold medals.

After U.S. favorite Michelle Kwan stumbled in Salt Lake City, Slutskaya looked certain to win the gold. But American Sarah Hughes outscored a nervous Slutskaya, who responded incredulously to her low marks.

"Those bastards, idiots," Slutskaya said, reacting to the marks the judges gave her, Gazeta.ru reported at the time. "Are they blind?"

Russia protested the decision, saying Slutskaya should be awarded a gold as in the pairs, but the protest was rejected.

In the wake of the scandal, a new judging system has been introduced for Turin, aimed more at objective point values than judges' subjectivity.

Led by Olga Zaitseva, the Russian women's 4x6 kilometer relay team in the biathlon will be looking to follow up its 2005 World Championship title with gold in Turin.

But Russia's most intriguing squad looks to be the men's hockey team, which, with a collection of National Hockey League and Russian Superleague stars assembled by new general manager Pavel Bure, is aiming to win its first Olympic gold since 1992.

The team finished a disappointing third in Salt Lake City, and Fetisov accused a referee of favoring the U.S. team as a Russian equalizer was disallowed in the third period of its 3-2 semifinal loss.

"He just killed us," Fetisov said after the game, referring to Canadian National Hockey League referee Bill McCreary. The referees "live here, they work here, they get paid by the NHL, therefore it's only natural that in crucial situations they will not make any calls against the United States or Canada," he said. "It was designed to be a U.S.-Canada final, and now they have it."

Bure, a former Russian national team and NHL star who was named head coach of the national team after he retired late last year, has said that only "true patriots" will be playing for the squad in Turin -- and that nothing less than gold will do.

With the Russian Olympic team featuring only one athlete who competed in the Games under the Soviet flag, biathalon veteran Sergei Chepikov, sports historian Alexander Nilin said Turin would see a final break with the Soviet sports era.

"Russian athletes have been succeeding in the Olympics since the fall of the Soviet Union, but this success has been due simply to inertia," Nilin said.

In fact, given that state funding for sports dried up after the Soviet collapse and the country's pool of potential athletes has shrunk dramatically, Russia's success has been quite impressive, Nilin said.

"But this is the last group of athletes trained under the Soviet system," Nilin said.

The Soviet breakup also left many athletic training centers outside Russian borders, and sports and government officials alike have lamented the slow pace at which new facilities have been built.

"I mean, the Russian bobsleigh championships are held in Latvia," said Oleg Shamonayev, a commentator for the magazine Pro Sport, in a telephone interview Wednesday.

Shamonayev said if Russia were to finish fifth in the medals table it would be "a remarkable achievement."

Whether the type of scandals that plagued the Salt Lake City Games will recur in Turin remains to be seen. But at a meeting with Putin on Monday, Tyagachyov said he was leaving nothing to chance.

"A team of lawyers has been sent to Turin ahead of time to address anything that could be used against our national team," Tyagachyov said, Interfax reported.