Yurik Sarkisyan, a 31-year-old weightlifter, was a tiny cog in the sports machine that was the Soviet Union. An Armenian by birth, Sarkisyan won a silver medal in the boycott-marred 1980 Olympics in Moscow. With success came privileges: housing, the opportunity to travel, an above-average monthly stipend of rubles, hard-currency bonuses based on performance. And with privileges came respect.
But things changed for Sarkisyan, as they have for the athletes who will compete in Barcelona as the Unified Team—a fragile alliance of the 11 republics in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and Georgia. Since the breakup of the U.S.S.R., sports have taken a backseat to the more pressing concerns of a society whose newfound freedoms have been accompanied by hyperinflation and a drop in the already low standard of living. Sarkisyan continued to train in the same facility he always did, an hour outside Moscow, but he hasn't been paid his monthly salary of 1,000 rubles—about $8 on the open market—in a year. Costs, meanwhile, soared as the government eliminated most price controls in an effort to establish a market economy. "Our salary goes up two times," said Sarkisyan. "Inflation goes up 100 times."
Armenia, Sarkisyan's homeland, is at war with its neighboring republic, Azerbaijan, and his hometown of Samakert has been without electricity or gas for nine months. So Sarkisyan took his wife and twin daughters to the weightlifting center to live. The four Sarkisyans shared two small rooms in the athletes' dormitory, and for this he had to pay 1,500 rubles a month—the equivalent of a month and a half's salary. "I can't go home to train, because there's a war, no food," Sarkisyan said. "Second place at the world championships in Dowschengen, Germany, last year was worth $750, and it is precisely on that money we're living now. We can live here for another two or three months, and then we don't know. I don't even know what my citizenship is."
Sarkisyan had hoped, probably unrealistically, that success in Barcelona would open doors for him in other countries. He dreamed of competing in 1996 for Australia, or even the U.S. The Unified Team, to the average Soviet athlete, was little more than a forced marriage engineered by IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch to alleviate a housing shortage in the Olympic Village. The agreement reached in March by the CIS members and Georgia to compete in Barcelona as a unified team did, however, preserve a measure of continuity in the sports system. The republics have agreed to compete as a single team one last time. Four years from now, when the Olympics are held in Atlanta, each republic will send its own team to the Games, as the Baltic republics, Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, are doing now.
July 12, 1992
Sarkisyan's dreams of emigration fueled his training. Every squat. Every lift. Every time he saw the faces of his wife and children. But it is difficult to train on a diet of dreams and worry, and in the CIS weightlifting championships, Sarkisyan finished third. Only the first, and possibly the second, qualifier in his weight class would be going to Barcelona. Barring injury to one of the weightlifters, Sarkisyan was staying home. Wherever home was.
The deteriorating economic climate in Russia and its neighboring republics has adversely affected the training of virtually all Unified Team athletes. "We're not going to be able to compete with the U.S. and Germany, probably not in the 1994 Goodwill Games and definitely not in 1996," says Nikolai Rusak, chairman of the Interregional Sports Committee.
The swimmers have been particularly hard hit. Civil war in Georgia, which has a tropical climate, and the conflict in Armenia, where the swimmers train at altitude, have deprived the team of its prime winter training facilities. And soaring food prices have led to a vitamin deficiency in the swimmers' diet, according to head coach Gleb Petrov. "Since September our swimmers have not even been getting elementary doses of the ABC group of vitamins," Petrov said. "Our budget went up a little, but prices rose six to eight times. And with the hike in airline prices, we couldn't compete in international competitions."
No sport has been spared. Cyclists, rowers, kayakers, track and field athletes—more than 500 team members in all who generally train in Georgia were unable to do so last winter. The quality of the food is universally decried. Salaries are paid late or not at all. Further, the criteria for selecting the Unified Team have been politicized. Careful consideration of each athlete's republic of origin is being factored into his or her placement on the team. "Each republic wants to be assured it has representatives on the national team," says Aleksandr Aleksandrov, the women's gymnastics coach. "I can tell it's not going to be entirely objective."
"In sports like judo, wrestling, boxing and weightlifting, a committee decides the team," says Rusak. "They'll pick one representative from each republic instead of maybe taking seven representatives from Russia, even if they are the best seven."
The mixing of politics and sport is, naturally, demoralizing, not only for the athletes but also for the coaches. There has already been a dramatic exodus of coaches from the former U.S.S.R. who feel betrayed as they watch the system that spawned the greatest sports power in the history of the Olympics being dismantled. Tamara Alexeyeva, Olga Korbut's former gymnastics coach, is now working in South Africa. After the Olympics, the coach of the Unified Team men's gymnastics team, Leonid Arkaev, will be gone. "I will leave because one has to earn some money to live," Arkaev says.
Vladislav Platonov, who built the Soviet Union's volleyball team into a world power in the '70s and '80s, is expected to move to Finland after the Games to take over its national team. And when there were rumors that Anatoly Bishovitz, the head coach of the CIS soccer team, had signed a contract to coach in Portugal, Sovietski Sport editorialized: "If Bishovitz leaves, then it's because his salary by international standards is nothing.... His going abroad is a perfectly respectable decision."
Even those coaches who have decided they will stay behind, for patriotic or personal reasons, are doing so with a sense of remorse for what has been lost. "The whole world is trying to unite, and look at us, we're dividing," laments Anatoly Shemyakin, a gymnastics coach from Ukraine who coaches with the Unified Team national team in the Round Lake facility near Moscow. Shemyakin has seen the benefits of the old centrally controlled system, under which young gymnasts from Ukraine, Belarus, Uzbekistan, Russia etc. went to Round Lake and, through internal competition, dramatically raised the level of each other's performances. "The three strongest gymnasts in Ukraine are here," Shemyakin says. "But there aren't any more like them back home. Those who train here show very noticeable improvement. Back home in Kiev, they don't. Maybe if you talk about economics or politics, there was something wrong with the old Soviet Union. But you talk about sport, this worked. Everybody won. For gymnastics this was the best system in the world."
Igor Ter-Ovanesyan, the head of the CIS Track and Field Federation and a former Olympic long jumper, agrees. "The system we had before made us Number One in the world," he says. "And now I am afraid they'll completely tear it down. If Sergei Bubka came to me and said, I want to be the best pole vaulter in the world, I could say, What do you need? A pole? Conditioning? Competition? And I did it for him. If a farmer went to Gorbachev and said, I want to be the best farmer in the world, Gorbachev would ask, What do you need? Land? Fertilizer? A Caterpillar tractor? And Gorbachev would answer, No, we cannot give you land. No fertilizer. No Caterpillar. But you must still be the best farmer in the world.
"That's the difference in our country between government and sport."
That was the difference. And while no one is suggesting that athletes from the former Soviet Union will be left to fend entirely for themselves in the future, neither will they be cultivated quite as assiduously as before. Russian president Boris Yeltsin, an enthusiastic sports fan, essentially got his government out of the Olympic business on June 1 by establishing the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC). Headed by Vitaly Smirnov, a current vice-president of the IOC, and his deputy, Alexander Kozlovski, the ROC has assured Yeltsin that it will be independent of the state and will be self-financing. It is, in fact, modeled after the U.S. Olympic Committee, which receives no tax dollars and finances itself through myriad marketing and licensing arrangements, private donations and corporate sponsors.
How successful the ROC will be at financing a world-class Olympic program remains to be seen. Both Smirnov and Kozlovski have marketing experience and ties with corporations such as Coca-Cola and Adidas, and both men are slick, multilingual and well connected.
Because of the unsettled political atmosphere in Russia and an unfavorable tax structure that is being revamped, corporate contributions have been slow in coming. But that may be changing. Smirnoff, the American vodka manufacturer, has just agreed to become a sponsor of the Unified Team, and the last-minute funding ensures that the team will be able to compete in Barcelona. The German company Adidas has pledged some $15 million over the next several years, and a Yugoslav company, Goma, is making the team uniforms. The ROC is also working with the Collegiate Licensing Co. of Atlanta, which will help the committee license and market T-shirts.
Smirnov recently signed a TV contract with Ted Turner and CNN, the station that will cover the Goodwill Games in St. Petersburg in 1994. And the ROC is exploring the sale of domestic television rights. "Now we get not a single penny from Russian television," says Kozlovski. "To cover the Goodwill Games in 1994, Russian television is demanding money from us."
Ter-Ovanesyan also predicts that Russia will begin to host commercial competitions as a vehicle to raise money. "U.S.-Russian competitions. High jumps on Red Square. The Kremlin mile," he says. "It's a difficult time but an interesting time. I like it very much. Each day I'm like a hunter. Where will I get my food? Who will I kill?"
The reorganization plan for sports signed by Yeltsin does not get the government out of the sports business entirely. It also establishes a state-financed Committee for Physical Fitness. This governmental bureau has a mandate to provide athletic facilities for the common man, an area that, ironically, was pretty much ignored in the last decade that the Communists were in power in Russia. "Before, all the money went to elite or higher-level sports," says Boris Fyodorov, the 33-year-old author of the sports reorganization plan and number two man on Yeltsin's Advisory Body on Sports and Physical Culture.
It's a costly undertaking for a government to identify and train world-class athletes. Much of the former U.S.S.R.'s success was predicated on spotting potential early and developing it through a network of children's sports schools. The best athletes in these schools were then handpicked for admission into the Olympic Reserve Schools. There are 22 Olympic Reserve Schools in Russia alone, and the ROC intends to keep as many of them open as it is able to afford. But the children's sports schools, the widest end of the funnel, are rapidly being closed. Smirnov says that at last count 400 have been shut down.
"Ten years ago a 10-year-old gymnast could get into a sports club for free as long as her parents let her do it," says Rudolf Nezvetsky, chief of press relations for the Sports Committee of Russia, an organization that was effectively disbanded with the creation of the ROC. "The parents saw only the positives—the privileges, the recognition. Now the parents start to see the negatives. The schools are no longer free, and the parents have to pay for the training. The kids are away from home. Injuries. Athletes don't enjoy the prestige they once did."
Vladimir Sichov, a heavyset man with piercing blue eyes, dark hair and a sad face, is deputy director of Moscow's Olympic Club for Water Sports. "Our mission here was to make sure the children swam and studied at the same time, and for this the trade unions gave us money," Sichov says. "Now the trade unions have no money, and we must raise the money ourselves. We have to earn 2.4 million rubles, so now we have to charge the kids 10 rubles a month to swim. Before, we took swimmers according to ability and potential. Now our main goal is to make money, so we take only those who can pay. We were forced to fire 14 coaches in May and turn 2,500 kids onto the street. This is happening in all sports, all over the union. Those 2,500 kids aren't going to be busy. Who knows, they might organize into gangs and thieves."
These are the words of a man who has seen the world he grew up in change before his eyes, and not, at least materially, for the better. Not yet anyway. Yurik Sarkisyan's worries, Vladimir Sichov's dismay, these are but small expressions of the monumentally difficult times being experienced by citizens of the former Soviet Union. Times that are not conducive to fun and games, which explains the ambivalence that people of the CIS and Georgia are feeling for the upcoming Olympics and the future of their sports programs.
"What does the small group of athletes on the medal stand, who are often more concerned with their own winnings than with the prestige of Russia as a great power, give to a hungry and destroyed country?" a May 15 article in Sovietski Sport asked. "These days any housewife or priest does at least as much for Mother Russia as an Olympic champion. If we need heroes and pride in our nation now, maybe it's better to turn away from the TV, come down from the bleachers and take a look around. Heroes are born out of suffering, and nearly everyone is suffering today."
Sports, today as always, are part and parcel of society, and Russian society is writhing in pain.