Russia laments gold medal exiles who got away
Slovakia's Anastasiya Kuzmina competes in the Women's Biathlon 10 km Pursuit at the Laura Cross-Country Ski and Biathlon Center during the Sochi Winter Olympics in Rosa Khutor near Sochi on February 11, 2014 - by Alberto Pizzoli
Sochi gold medallists Anastasiya Kuzmina of Slovakia, Iouri Podladtchikov of Switzerland and Daria Domracheva of Belarus are, for Russia, the ones who got away.
Their slipping through the net is particularly galling for Russia at a home Olympics where pressure is great but medals hard to come by, with just a single gold as of Tuesday night.
The failure of Russia to identify and keep the top sporting talent underlines the vacuum created when the all-conquering Soviet system disappeared with the rest of the USSR.
The "brawn drain" of great athletes has uncomfortable parallels with the great minds Russia has also lost over the last decades like US-based Google founder Sergey Brin (born in Moscow) and Nobel prize-winning physicist Andre Geim (born in Sochi) but now based in Britain.
The most blatant and painful sporting case for Russia is that of Kuzmina, who won a sensational first weekend gold for Slovakia in the biathlon sprint to follow her gold at Vancouver 2010.
-'The legend we lost'-
Born Anastasiya Shipulina the western Siberian city of Tyumen –- a production line for many of Russia’s greatest biathletes and skiers -- she made her international debut in Russian colours but then switched to Slovakia in 2008 after making no progress under the Russian system.
"The legend who we lost," said the Sport Express daily.
"In the sad -- for Russia -- fairy tale about Kuzmina there are a lot of might-have-beens and all verbs are in the past tense," it lamented.
"She was a winner as a junior. Then she was ignored. She got upset. And she went where she was needed," it added.
Adding insult to injury for the Russian sports authorities desperate for gold is that Kuzmina is still deeply attached to the country of her birth.
"This victory in my homeland is a big thing," she said. "I am Russian after all, although I am a Slovakian passport holder, this is my home."
Kuzmina's switch means her parents, who still live in Tyumen, came to Sochi supporting siblings competing under different flags -- her brother Anton Shipulin is one of Russia’s big biathlon stars.
As if the Kuzmina episode was not enough, the second women’s biathlon race of the Games was won by an athlete who had once worn Russian colours.
Domracheva was born in the Belarussian capital Minsk but moved at an early age with her architect parents to the Siberian town of Nyagan, where she took up cross country skiing and biathlon.
She represented Russia at junior level but when she returned to Minsk, Belarussian coaches spotted her talent and invited her onto the national team.
She is already feted as a national heroine and is now likely to enjoy the same celebrity status at home as Belarussian tennis star Victoria Azarenka.
-'Russian is my mother tongue'-
Podladtchikov, who caused one of the sensations of the Games to dethrone superstar Shaun White to take the men's snowboard halfpipe gold, was born in the town of Podolsk of the Moscow region in the dying years of the USSR.
His parents, Moscow academics, moved to Switzerland in the early 1990s. Podladtchikov made his first international appearances for Russia and competed for Russia in the Turin 2006 Olympics.
But he took Swiss citizenship and began competing for Switzerland, reportedly after falling out with Russian coaches. He came fourth for Switzerland in the halfpipe in Vancouver 2010 and then reached the ultimate glory in Sochi.
Like Kuzmina, Podladtchikov said his victory was extra special as it came in the country of his birth.
"It's really beautiful. I love to speak Russian because it's my mother tongue -- it reminds me of so many things. When I'm here it reminds me of things I've almost forgotten."
But his fine words come as little consolation for Russian officials who know that great athletes went abroad due to the failure of the system to spot real talent at the crucial early age.
"How can you guarantee that in four years time some Nastya, Anya or Lyuba born in Russia is not going to stand on top of the podium under another flag?" said Sport Express.