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.