Vancouver's final medal count shows the unhappy Russians way down the list, with just 15 medals. But there's more to their grumbling than sour grapes -- way more. A little analysis shows an interesting picture of wins leveraged by political shifts.
The Russian government is unhappy because it is remembering the "good old days" of the Cold War, 1949-1989. This was when the U.S. and the Soviet Union were going head to head in sports, with each one avid to pile up the most Olympic medals and demonstrate its "superiority."
Moscow came out ahead because the Russian-dominated USSR had a vast region to pull athletes and coaches and resources from...meaning Russia proper and the other 14 countries that comprised the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics along with Russia. East Germany -- which came under Communist rule after the Soviet occupation during World War II, but competed independently from the USSR -- also fattened the Communist medal haul.
(In my analysis, I'm not counting the satellite communist countries of eastern Europe, like Poland and Czechoslovakia, because they competed independently from the USSR and didn't dominate the medal standings like the Soviets did. East Germany is a special case, because of issues devolving from the Soviet/Allied occupation, and also because East Germany became a communist powerhouse in the medals standing.)
So, during that balmy (for the Reds) era, it was usually the USSR that won the most medals at each Winter Games. The U.S. was usually an also-ran during those years. Not only that, but the Soviets dethroned Canada as the hockey power. This was between 1956 and 1988. Only in 1968 did a non-communist country -- Norway -- get the biggest pile. In 1980, it was East Germany, not the USSR, that won the most medals. Typically the Soviets ran off with anywhere from 16 to 29 medals at each Winter Games.
And what country dominated the Winter medals race before World War II, and before the USSR entered Olympic competition? Usually it was Norway.
Then in 1989, things started falling apart for Moscow. The USSR -- with all its countries and its massive combined sports resources -- began breaking up. When the 14 other countries declared their independence and made their own affiliations with the IOC, Russia was left holding the bag on her old challenge of "superiority" and medal-winning.
In 1990, after communism ended in East Germany and it reunited with the West, Germany started sending a single unified team to the Olympics. And guess what -- in 1992, at the Albertville Winter Games in France, it was reunified Germany that wiped up the floor with the Soviets, and owned the podium with the most medals -- 26!
In short, the radical rearrangement of ideological borders across Europe has meant a radical re-distribution of medals as well. To put it another way -- today, when the Russian premier growls that his winter-sports coaches should all be fired as punishment for their poor showing in Vancouver, he's blaming them for something that isn't their fault.
Here's a closer look at the rearrangement. In Vancouver, the former Soviet republics of Belarus, Kazakhstan, Latvia and Estonia each sent their own independent teams -- and each won 1 medal, meaning 4 medals that Moscow couldn't get. Meanwhile, Germany continues to be a major medal power in its own right, with its 30 medals in Vancouver. So that totals 34 medals that Russia might have had if the old regime had still been in place. This explains a great deal about why the Russians are pissed.
Another factor working against Russian wins is this: additional countries coming on strong in winter sports, like Japan, South Korea and the People's Republic of China. They're now nabbing medals that the Soviets used to get as a matter of course -- like figure skating.
Yet another problem for Moscow is its own dire economic problems. Some Russian athletes flee a growing poverty of sports resources in their own country -- to live and train in Europe, Canada and the U.S.
Oddly enough, the Russian haul in Vancouver wasn't much smaller than that 16 or so that the Soviets used to win in the glory days.
It's true that the pie is bigger now. There are more winter sports to compete in, like halfpipe and snowboarding. But there are many more countries competing hungrily for pieces of that pie now -- 82 in 2010, compared to 32 countries in 1956. And hungry Canada has worked to recapture dominance in hockey.
That Vancouver total of 15 is in no way a disgrace to the individual Russian athletes who competed with their whole hearts. Russian talent hasn't changed. It's the world that has changed.
So the next time around, with the 2014 Winter Games held on their own turf, the Russian government isn't going to win more medals by playing politics, or throwing tantrums, or punishing their people. The best thing they can do is...stop living in the past. I hope they will do what every other country in the medals standing has been doing. Namely, work hard to develop new talent, and support their athletes and coaches in the most positive ways possible.