Putin: President, Athlete or Superhero?

In the eyes of many, Vladimir Putin is a complete badass.

Vladimir Putin

In Russia, sports are very popular to all ages, but as I have made clear in my previous posts, Russia’s view on popularity is distinct from others. From Formula 1 racing to chess boxing (yes, it really exists), it seems Russian’s desire for adrenaline is unlike all counterparts.

Chess Boxing in Russia

This need for adrenaline seems to be present in Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin as he enjoys hang gliding, sky diving and scuba diving.  Putin has played a major role in the development of sports in Russia. In 2007, Putin made a fully fluent English speech that resulted in a successful bid for Sochi to host the 2014 Winter Olympics.  He aided Russia in earning the right to host the 2018 FIFA World Cup for the first time.  Currently very popular online and through social media, Putin has been seen doing outlandish acts to promote sports and a healthy way of life to Russians.

Unlike the U.S.A. in my opinion, Russia has a greater appreciation for sports outside of the most popular ones (football, basketball, baseball and soccer).  Maybe this is because Putin leads by example.  Putin participates in alpine skiing, formula 1 racing and big game hunting, and at the same time,  people enjoy watching him.  Much like President Obama has been reported playing basketball with the University of North Carolina among other places, Putin competes, just at a more adventurous level.  Recently,

Adorned in white overalls – to resemble a bird – Vladimir Putin spent some of Wednesday leading in a different capacity, heading a flock of crane birds in flight from a hang glider. The stunt already has the Russian blogosphere alight. –RT.com

Such stunts have become a trademark of Vladimir Putin since he first became President in 2000. He once shot a rare tiger with a stun dart before putting a tracking device on him, and two years ago shot a whale with an arrow containing a tracking device from a crossbow. –RT.com

Putin flies with rare cranes 

In February 2011, Vladimir Putin promised to learn to skate well enough to play hockey. He started training with Alexei Kasatonov, a famous hockey player, and just two months later Putin was a confident skater. Recently Putin played in an event featuring Russian Legends of hockey against an amattuer team that Putin played with.

You read that correctly. Putin took the ice for an amateur hockey team that was squaring off in an exhibition game against a group of some of Russia’s biggest hockey legends. The match took place literally hours after Putin was sworn in. The fact Putin played in a hockey game might be surprising as is. The fact Putin set up the game-tying goal and scored the game-winning goal in a shootout is remarkable. –Bloguin

Vladimir Putin plays hockey vs. Russia’s Legends

At the age of 60, there are backlashes from Putin’s actions on the ice.  Recently reports have surfaced that:

Russia’s sky-diving, wolf-hunting, horseback riding president has suffered a “sports injury,” according to his spokesman, but some Kremlin watchers insist something more serious is afoot. – The Atlantic Wire

The injury is often talked about in the twitter world as well as people are concerned about the health of Putin, and how this lifestyle effects the President.

Twitter voices concerns on Putin’s health.

The fact that Putin leads the charge by playing sports and living a healthy life surely plays a role in the promotion of athletics, but how big of a role is uncertain. I think it would be exciting to see Barrack Obama strap on a helmet and pads and take part in the NFL Pro bowl, but I don’t ever see that happening.  I doubt it would be viewed  highly by Americans if our President was spending time shooting tigers and whales, but I personally would enjoy watching him do it, especially if it would promote young people to go out and be adventurous.


Putin: an end to match-fixing

Would you ever “throw” a sports game?
What if you were offered $100,000?

It is wrong to damage the integrity of the game, no matter how large the benefit is. For years there have been conspiracies of match-fixing in almost every sport. Russian President, Vladimir Putin, is trying to end this misconduct in his home country.

1919 Black Sox Scandal

When the topic of match-fixing comes up, the most famous event that comes to mind is the “Black Sox” Scandal that took place during the 1919 World Series. “Sport” Sullivan, a gambler from New York, offered $80,000 to eight Chicago White Sox players to “throw” the series so he could cash in on a bet. The scandal was brought to light and all eight players were suspended from Major League Baseball for life.

Match-fixing is still commonly talked about on Twitter, especially after a referee makes a bad call. Whether the accusations are true or not, people love to talk about it.

Twitter on Match-fixing

In Russia, there have always been conspiracies of match-fixing, and rightfully so, with the numerous instances that seem obvious. The Fix Is In, home of the nation’s most skeptical fan and #1 sports conspiracy theorist, listed many times match-fixing may have played a role in sports. To point out a few from the list that  occurred in Russian sports :

1970s-80s – During the height of the Russian hockey program, its greatest team was known as the Moscow Red Army (TSKA). During this time, the team’s skate sharpener, the president of Sparta Moscow (TSKA’ chief rival), TSKA St. Petersburg team president and the president of the Russian Ice Hockey Federation were all murdered by the Russian mafia. Most believe all of these murders were linked to gambling and game fixes.

2003 – Belarus goalie Valery Shantolosov was arrested for attempting to fix two Euro qualifying matches. Though Shantolosov did not play in either game, he was connected to Russian gamblers and accused of attempting to bribe and otherwise influence the outcome of these games. His team lost both contests.

2009 – The WTA looked into a suspicious ending of a tennis match between U.S. Open finalist Caroline Wozniacki after she unexpectedly retired from a match winning 7-5, 5-0 (meaning she was a single game away from winning). Wozniacki claimed afterwards that she was injured early in the first set, and her father instructed her to quit when she did, afraid of her further injuring herself. Betting on the match had swung heavily to her opponent prior to Wozniacki quitting.”

Putin discussing match-fixing

President Putin has decided to step up his effort to end corruption in Russian sports. Putin will introduce a bill into Russia’s parliament that increases jail time for anyone involved in match-fixing. Violaters will be subject for up to seven years in prison, which also includes fines up to 1 million roubles ($32,000).

Reported by Gennady Fyodorov of Oztips on Yahoo Sports, “FIFPro, the global union for professional players, published a survey of nearly 3,400 players from Eastern Europe this year that attributed match-fixing in Russia was as high as 43.5 percent.”  While I think the new law is a step in the right direction, 43.5 percent is a significant amount of corruption.  It remains to be seen how effective these measures really are when the odds are stacked against them. Just how big of an effect can this really have, considering the scope of this worldwide problem? I can’t respond with a definite answer, but at least we have a starting point.

With Russia set to host the 2014 Winter Olympics and 2018 World Cup, there is no room for match-fixing. It is important for Russia to implement these laws promptly, before they are set to be on the world’s stage.


The KHL Invades

As for sports in Russia, the biggest buzz is clearly on the ice.

“One of the great ironies in the NHL’s ongoing (but going nowhere) CBA negotiations is the fact that, while the NHL and NHLPA are fighting mostly over how to split the hockey-related revenue, the revenue for the upcoming season is dropping by the day”, said Brian Stubits from CBS Sports.

The NHL lockout is only 25 days old, but has already cost the league and players a near quarter of a billion dollars. So, both sides are losing $10 million per day this lockout drags on.

Stubits continues by saying, “Last season, the NHL saw a record revenue level of $3.3 billion. So you can see how big of a chunk is already missing from this year’s pot.”

With this kind of money going out the window each day, there must be someone benefitting, right? The answer lies in a hockey league formed in Russia previously called the Russian Superleague. This league was renamed the Kontenental Hockey League in 2008 when it took in 6 teams outside of Russia. The KHL began with 24 teams, but expanded to 26 teams for the current 2012-2013 season. Already recognized as the strongest hockey team in Europe and second best in the world, the KHL has a big opportunity to brand itself even more.

NHL logo vs. KHL logo

I think this could have a major impact on the NHL.  Many players are accepting big contracts in Russia, as they believe the KHL will become popular enough to support their future likewise. Ilya Bryzgalov, goaltender for the Philadelphia Flyers,  thinks the KHL will pose a great threat to the future of the NHL, because it will steal all the top players from Russia.

“I think some of the players may not return to the NHL because you have everything here and major companies are going to pay the top players here big money. And, especially for Russians players who can play at home in front of their own fans and families and [earn] even bigger money than they have in the National Hockey League,” said Bryzgalov.

As a result of the NHL lockout, players have been looking at options playing oversees, and many have loved what they found.  More than 30 NHL players have signed with KHL teams.  The buzz about this in Russia is giant as  “shouts of “Our Ovechkin!” rang out through the Luzhniki Small Sports Arena as thousands of fans waved flags and scarves.”  These fans love to have their countrymen playing in their arenas back at home.  About a month ago I wrote a blog titled “Russia: What Makes You so Popular?” , about who Russians view as the most popular athletes, and why. I clearly concluded that the individuals on the National Gymnastics team won the honor of most popular because Russians get to see them perform at home more often than more famous athletes playing in the States.  If we were to look into this topic again, there might not be such a clear-cut favorite just a few weeks later, as “Ovechkin, Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk have returned to a hero’s welcome.”

The effect on the KHL could be colossal.   35% of all NHL players hail from Europe, as Russia contributes 35 players alone. This could flood the KHL with too many players, so they have set rules for accepting players from NHL to play in the KHL.  In order to eligible to get signed in the KHL, Vladimir Shalaev says in a statement, “For Russian clubs, only one of the three NHL players may be a foreigner (non-Russian), and this player must meet one of the following criteria set down to ensure that only top-level foreign players come to play in the Kontinental Hockey League.”

The criteria are as follows. A foreign player must meet at least one to be eligible.

• Player has played no fewer than 150 NHL games over the past three seasons.
• Player has KHL experience.
• Player represented his country at one of the past two World Championships, World Junior Championships or Olympics.
• Player has won a Stanley Cup, reached the final or won an individual NHL award.

By only accepting top-notch talent, the KHL is poised to become the best hockey league in the world.  If so, I think people in the U.S. would have no problem watching the KHL on ESPN, as they are currently airing KHL games in place of NHL games.  If the KHL is able to support their players better than the NHL, what stops American born players from wanting to play in that league as well?  As more time passes and an agreement has not been met, I believe the KHL will be better poised to take a huge chunk of NHL’s market share, which could detriment the league permanently.

In turn, this will have a major effect on Russia if the KHL becomes the best hockey league in the world.  Their National Hockey team could become better as well with all of the best Russians playing together, they will have more chemistry.  Could this shift Russian sports culture to glorify hockey even more as young Russians get the chance to watch their homegrown stars habitually?

It definitely could.

But how will this effect Russian fans if the lockout ends, and all of the “local heroes” flee back to the states for stardom?



Student Athletes, or Just Athletes?

“Topping the Olympic medals table was one way that the USSR showed the rest of the world how powerful it was.”

The USSR pioneered training athletes at a young age, as sports boarding schools were a crucial part of their dominance at the Olympics.  Young athletes would practice a single sport or event everyday of the week, ignoring everything else, so they could eventually be the best in the world.  With the collapse of communism, the system has changed, but in many ways it remains the same.

Alen wrestling with a teammate at the Olympic Reserve School in Ekaterinburg, Russia.

At an Olympic Reserve School in Ekaterinburg, Russia, many young athletes train in hopes to represent their country in the near future. Students do not have to pay to attend this school, as Russian teen and Greco-Roman wrestling standout, Alen, has been training five days a week since he was seven. “At first it was just something to do after school. When I started doing well I wanted to make it my career”. One of the school’s best divers, and qualifier for the Olympics in 2012 started swimming before she could walk.

I found an article “How to Grow a Super Athlete”, by Dennis Coyle on his trip to Russia with Elena Rybina, who worked part-time for the Russian Tennis Federation.  Coyle visited Spartak Tennis Club, a dominant club in the tennis world, to see how young athletes train in Russia compared to youngsters in the U.S.  “Tournament pairings regularly became all-Spartak affairs, most memorably the 2004 French Open final, Myskina over Dementieva, the continuation of a rivalry the two began at age 7.” “We are lucky,” Rybina whispered. “The heat is working. When it doesn’t, the kids play in their coats.”  Spartak Tennis Club is another example of the dedicated young athletes have in Russia.

The youngsters of Spartak Tennis Club.

When Coyle arrived, the youngsters were already there sporting heavy coats, carrying tennis rackets, sports duffels and plastic grocery bags. The class was an assortment of 12 kids from ages 4-7 who make the hour long trip to Spartak on a subway three times a week. The kids began their workout with a tough 15 minutes of calisthenics before throwing medicine balls back and forth. In my opinion, that is a tough routine for a 4 year old 3 times a week and many young Americans couldn’t hack it. “Thus the lesson began, and with it the unspoken implication: the great, rusty Spartak machine was coming to life, carrying its cargo of mini-geniuses another step closer toward inevitable glory.”

A few studies have been conducted to try to determine the amount of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation young athletes have. Intrinsic motivation is the motivation the athlete already has without being  pushed by a coach, while extrinsic is motivation that is forced onto the athlete.  In 2011, Marijana Mladenović and Aleksandar Marjanović directed a study, with the hypothesis that there was no difference in intrinsic motivation, but a lot of difference in extrinsic motivation between kids from different countries. The tests showed that youngsters from Serbia and Montenegro had a much higher degree of intrinsic motivation than Russian youngsters.  This shows that the young athletes in Russia are being pushed harder by their coaches or parents than in other countries.

The importance of the Olympics in Russia is awesome because it shows the pride that the country has.  I don’t think it is always in the best interest of the kids to be taking it more seriously than school if that truly is the case.  The Olympic Reserve School system currently in place in Russia is a great idea as long as the kids like being a part of it.  In many eyes, it is more of an honor to go to one of these schools than to go to a high scholarly school in Russia.  From a young age, Russians learn what they are good at, and where their careers will go.


Would you let your child focus strictly on a single sport at the age of 5 with hopes to be an olympian?






Russia: What Makes You so Popular?

If I were asked to name the most popular athlete in Russia, I would be far from correct. I would have guessed an athlete from one of the major sports such as football, tennis, or hockey. After a recent poll, the winner of this honor went to a modern rhythmic gymnastics star Alina Kabaeva with 22% of the vote. Second place went to Irina Slutskaya, a figure skater that I have never heard of. With athletes such as Maria Sharapova, Alex Ovechkin and Andrei Kirilenko that everone in the world knows, why do Russians feel their most popular athletes are not among the most famous ones?

Alex Ovechkin is a tremendously famous athlete, as he is the best hockey player for Russia who has one of the best International Hockey teams of all time.  The thing is that he is not as popular in his home country as some might think and this might be because he plays in the National Hockey League in the United States.  If he were to stay in Russia and play in a local hockey league, many think his popularity would explode.  For Russians, not having the chance to watch him play often live, they  lose interest in him.

In the United States, we watch mainstream sports such as football, baseball and basketball.  Stars like Lebron James, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Derek Jeter are known worldwide for their superlative play in the major sports in the U.S.  The difference is that Russia excels in sports that are not so popular.

The United States is dominated by all of the best sports leagues in the world.  With the National Basketball Association, National Football League and Major League Baseball, the U.S. draws in all of the best athletes from the mainstream sports.  These leagues get the best athletes because they are able to pay them incredibly  high salaries to play a game. Therefore, sport finatics in the U.S. have many different teams to follow and star players to watch all year long.

In Russia, not having sports leagues that draw the best of the best athletes caused them to develop a different type of sport environment.  As a benefit, the Russian International Teams have a tremendous amount of fans, so to them, their most popular athletes are among these teams, rather than the ones competing in the U.S.

Russians love their Olympic team as they have placed high in the medal count every year.  Russia is considered to have the best rhythmic gymnasts in the world as they have dominated the olympic podium for the sport recently. For that reason alone, Russia considers rhythmic gymnastics one of its most popular sports.  Because of their dominance in this sport at the olympics, no namers such as  Alina Kabaeva, Evgeniya Kanaeva and Daria Dmitrieva have become among the most popular Russian athletes to fellow Russians.

Now I understand why the Russians feel that their most popular athletes are not necessarily the most famous ones, nor do they need to come from a mainstream sport like soccer.  To them, the Olympic team is bigger than any single sport team and the MVP’s of the olympic team are the most popular athletes in the country.  Having such a dominate olympic rhythmic gymnastics team makes it is easy to see why they are voted the most popular.  These athletes may not be famous world wide, but they are superstars in their own country just like Lebron James is a superstar in the U.S.