MOSCOW – Russia is seeking to win a treasure trove of gold medals across a dozen sports at the Olympics to remind the world it remains a sporting superpower two decades after the USSR’s collapse.
Russia is targeting third place in the medal table and is offering up to $1 million cash incentives for a gold medal to prove it is a potent force even after the loss of the sports training infrastructure that drove the Soviet Red machine.
World famous pole-vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva and tennis player Maria Sharapova will be leading a charge that Russia hopes will yield at least 25 gold medals, two more than the 2008 Beijing Games.
Russia’s athletes will compete for Olympic glory in a variety of sports ranging from athletics and swimming to the big team sports of handball, basketball and volleyball.
“We want to finish among top three in the Games medal table,” Russia’s Olympic Committee (ROC) chief Alexander Zhukov said, setting the country’s Olympic team a target of 25 gold medals at London Games.
Russia’s sports experts — bred on a diet of Russian success — considered that in 2008 in Beijing the country’s Olympic team performed beneath potential even though they finished third in the medal table with 23 golds.
“The competition between the countries at 2012 Games will be extremely tough,” Zhukov said.
Sports minister Vitaly Mutko also said he was hoping Russia will be third in the medal table adding, however, that it would not be a national tragedy if the country’s squad finish fourth.
“It’s objectively impossible to overcome the world sports leaders United States and China at the Games,” he said.
“The hosts Great Britain and Germany will be our main rivals in the race for the third place. And in some disciplines we will compete directly. But I don’t think it’ll be a tragedy if our team take fourth place at the Olympics.”
Russia’s athletics squad will be among the most fancied teams with Isinbayeva now recovering the unstoppable form that already made her a two-time Olympic champion in 2004 and 2008.
But great things are also expected from the high jumpers with Beijing bronze medalist Anna Chicherova in the women’s event and Ivan Ukhov and Beijing Games champion Andrei Silnov in the men’s among the red-hot favourites.
Other gold medals could come from long-distance runner Lilia Shobukhova, Tatiana Lebedeva in triple jump, Maria Abakumova in javelin as well as the women’s relay squads.
The 31-year-old veteran Yury Borzakovsky, the Athens Olympic champion, who won the European title in Helsinki, is also among the favourites for the Olympic gold medal in the men’s 800m distance.
Russia’s track and field athletics federation boss Valentin Balakhnichev believes the athletics squad can grab six gold medals.
“There’s huge competition in the world track and field athletics,” Balakhnichev said. “But our share of the team’s Olympic medal income was always valuable and I believe this time we will be able to add up to six gold medals.”
In swimming, backstroke specialist Anatastia Zueva will be among the Games favourites.
But Russia’s biggest aquatic star could be synchronised swimmer Natalya Ishchenko who won team gold in 2008 and has now won so many world and European titles across disciplines she is known as the Michael Phelps of synchro.
Russian male and female volleyball teams also have chances to win medals along with women’s handball and water polo squads, who are among the favourites.
Gold medals could also come from rhythmic and artistic gymnastics, weightlifting, fencing, shooting, wrestling, and boxing.
Sharapova, who completed her career Grand Slam earlier this year and will be Russia’s flag-bearer at the opening of the Olympics, will also be the focus of the country’s women’s tennis squad.
ROC deputy chief Ahmed Bilalov, who is also a Russian senator, said that athletes winning gold would receive up to one million dollars.
“We have the summer Olympic sports association, which is presided by (metals tycoon) Vladimir Lisin, one of the country’s wealthiest men,” Bilalov said.
“The concrete size of reward for the Olympic medal winners depends on their federations, which are often headed by wealthy people, who set up the special prize funds for their athletes.”
“We are hoping we will be able to restore Russia’s status as an Olympic superpower at London Games.”