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.






7 thoughts on “Russia: What Makes You so Popular?

  1. I’m a pretty big hockey fan and it seems to me that Russian players who choose to play in the NHL instead of the KHL face some stigma at home. It does not surprise me that the most popular athletes in Russia are those who stay in Russia and who are involved in sports that have a much greater focus on national teams and less of a focus on seeking big-contracts in the States.

  2. I thought your post was one of the most intriguing. It’s crazy how Ovechkin or any other hockey or soccer player is known to be popular in America yet not very popular within their own home country. I always knew that the Russians took pride in their gymnastics, but I had no idea that they loved it that much, which is far from the US in the fact that now its over and will not be popular again for another couple of years when the Winter Olympics come around.

  3. This was a really interesting post. I wonder if they put more importance on individual sports over team sports. Also I bet the popularity of athletes is connected to the popularity of the sport. So gymnastics is very popular in Russian therefore the best gymnast is the most popular athlete. Just how football is the most popular sport here and Tom Brady is one of the most popular atheltes.

  4. Wow. 22% seems like a large piece of the market! For gymnastics? Never would have guessed that. I think it might be interesting to compare market trends with United States’ apparel sales with the Russian apparel sales. I wonder if Russia’s athletic atmosphere gives in to much of the pageantry that we see in football and basketball here in the US with their homeland gymnastic squad. More importantly, I wonder if they’ve ever gone “Linsane” with Alina Kabaeva similar to the Jeremy Lin sensation months ago. For me, I would be very interested in the sports market and the fandom and recognition that competitive leagues receive across seas. Nice piece.

  5. I do like the contrast between popular and famous athletes. The focus on athleticism and not merely on marketability gives a certain credence to Russian athletes. Not to say that famous athletes are not talented it just seems that the ones that are the most popular are the ones that best represent the country and not a particular franchise. This is an interesting article mainly because it deals with issues of perspective. What is more important, money or pride? Judging by your post it would seem that Russian’s tend to side with pride.

  6. The comparison between a famous athlete vs a popular athlete is really interesting and not something I’ve ever really thought about before. It is not very shocking to me that gymnastics is one of their big sports but I didn’t recognize any of the names of the Russian girls I saw perform in the Olympics this summer. Maybe those are past winners and the girls couldn’t quite pull through this year so they aren’t as popular. Regardless, super cool topic. I’ll be interested to see what you come up with next!

  7. During the Olympics this year I watch a segment on the history of the Russian gymnastics time, and how they are praised in Russia because of their outstanding performance every consecutive year. I also find it interesting that a lot of Russian athletes come to America to make a career in sports, but i guess the opportunity is greater in the U.S.

Comments are closed.