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Saturday, July 29, 2000
Russians aim for top of medal count despite money problems

 MOSCOW (AP) -- There are few people in the world as intimidating as Russian Greco-Roman wrestler Alexander Karelin.

 At 286 pounds, with a thick neck, giant forehead and sunken eyes, along with the enormous muscles coursing up his legs, arms and back, he is not a man you'd like to meet in a dark alley.

 Or on the wrestling mat, for that matter.

 Famous for a move in which he tosses his opponents over his head, the three-time Olympic champion has never lost an international match and is one of the few athletes going into the Sydney Games all but guaranteed to win gold.

 Karelin is probably the biggest -- literally and figuratively -- of Russia's medal hopes. But the country has many more, and Moscow is predicting it will recapture the Olympic dominance its athletes and coaches enjoyed under the Soviet Union despite money woes that mean many training facilities are crumbling or out of date.

 The Russians have strong swimmers, gymnasts, runners, volleyball players, boxers, divers, shooters and fencers.

 The government has predicted Russia will win 36 gold medals, up from 1996 when it was a distant second to the United States with 26. The Americans, they say, will trail just behind.

 If the medal count turns out to be accurate, it would be an amazing reversal for the team that was crippled after the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union, when some of its best athletes, coaches and training facilities suddenly belonged to other countries.

 Some had predicted the Russian sports machine would gradually decline because of cash and equipment shortages. But its athletes only appear to be getting stronger.

 "It's really a surprising phenomenon," said Olympic historian Valery Shteinbakh. "The sports ethic that was instilled many years ago remains."

 Aside from Karelin, the country is counting on world champion high jumper Vyacheslav Voronin; Svetlana Masterkova, the 1996 Olympic running champion in the 800 and 1,500 metres; and world champion gymnasts Alexei Nemov and Svetlana Khorkina.

 Then there are Dmitry Sautin and Yulia Pakhalina, two of the world's premier divers, and 800-metre runner Yuri Borzakovsky, nicknamed "Yuri the Kenyan" for his ability to challenge the East Africans who dominate the middle-distance events.

 While Russia remains powerful in Soviet-era strengths like fencing, wrestling and gymnastics, it has also risen to dominance in other sports like synchronized swimming and handball.

 Russian coaches and athletes attribute their success to the rigorous training programs developed during the Soviet era that immerse children in their sport early on. The system remains in place, while many trainers have stayed on despite abysmal salaries and equipment shortages.

 "In other countries, there isn't the same quality of trainers, even though our trainers are the worst-paid in the world," said head diving coach Alexei Yevantulov. He said his team didn't have enough money to buy new springboards and will be training for two weeks in Italy before the games because of shortages at home.

 One of the biggest threats to Russia's sports prominence has been the exodus of athletes abroad in search of lucrative endorsements rarely offered at home.

 While some athletes have endorsements from Western companies, the only athlete with any major visibility inside Russia is the 32-year-old Karelin, whose image glowers out from juice cartons, heaps of medals slung around his neck.

 Karelin is also a parliamentary deputy with the pro-Kremlin Unity party, apparently picked for his image as unshakable and even-tempered but lacking any real political program.

 Even Alexander Popov, the world's top male short-distance swimmer, doesn't get nearly the recognition at home that he does in Australia, where he trains. He would likely be a national hero there, and making millions of dollars each year in endorsements, if he had citizenship.

 "I don't want to say anything bad here, but I have a street named after me in Sydney, but not in Russia," Popov said at a recent meet in Russia.

 The government has moved to make sports a larger priority. President Vladimir Putin, a black-belt in judo, appointed himself the head of the committee preparing Russia's athletes for the Sydney Games.

 The move likely means Russia will avoid the embarrassment of the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan, when the medal winners saw their cash bonuses delayed for months.

 The bonuses remain unchanged this year, with the government awarding gold medal winners $50,000 US. Silver medal winners will get $20,000 and bronze winners $10,000.

 For many athletes, the lack of endorsements and poor conditions in Russia provide extra competitive spark, driving them to prove that they don't need the plush conditions many other athletes take for granted.

 "Yes, we don't train under proper conditions," said Voronin, the world champion high jumper, who said he sometimes must wait in line to lift weights because there isn't enough equipment to go around.

 "The thing that props me up is that I'm a Russian. And we have to prove that we're still stronger than anyone else. They should be afraid of us."

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