MOSCOW, December 30 (R-Sport, James Ellingworth) - A week of failure redeemed by glory in the Olympic Stadium left Russia’s sports fans with shredded nerves at London 2012, in a year that gave the world’s largest country new triumphs and painful reminders of old problems.
Fans everywhere had a rollercoaster ride - in tennis, Maria Sharapova won the French Open as the Russian men’s game hit a new low, and in football, record-breaking Champions League showings for Zenit and CSKA were swiftly followed by ignominious failure at Euro 2012.
Russia moved closer to reviving the Soviet Union’s sporting influence when they host the 2014 Winter Olympics and 2018 football World Cup, but doping scandals and football violence also hit the headlines.
Around the world, London 2012 was the peak of the sporting year, and Russia was no exception.
A slow start left Russia behind Kazakhstan and North Korea in the medals table after the first week, sparking recriminations and firings before the athletics even got under way.
When Russia’s track and field stars got going, however, the picture changed. Their eight gold medals helped to haul Russia past the mark of 23 from Beijing 2008, with high jumpers, race walkers and hurdlers all chipping in. Pole vault legend Yelena Isinbayeva took bronze and swiftly canceled her retirement plans.
Decades of doping scandals always cast a long shadow over Russia’s Olympic efforts, and the 2012 squad generated some negative press of its own. Daria Pishchalnikova won silver in the discus but has since tested positive, as has hammer thrower Kirill Ikonnikov, while track cycling medal contender Victoria Baranova confessed to doping while at the Games.
There was also a tragic coda to Russia’s Olympics when volleyball coach Sergei Ovchinnikov committed suicide weeks after his women’s team missed out on the medals.
In the year’s other major sports event, Russia’s national football team started Euro 2012 brightly with a 4-1 demolition of the Czech Republic, before faltering in a 1-1 draw with hosts Poland and crashing out after a 1-0 loss to Greece in their last group game. The tournament saw the emergence of midfielder Alan Dzagoev as an international star, and he has since been linked with major European clubs.
Euro 2012’s aftermath saw the downfall of team captain Andrei Arshavin, who denied he bore any responsibility for the team’s showing and criticized the fans for harboring lofty expectations. He has been frozen out by new coach Fabio Capello, under whom Russia are now unbeaten in six games.
Domestic football saw a year of thrills and spills, with Zenit St. Petersburg riding high after retaining their domestic title, reaching the Champions League knockout stages and signing striker Hulk for a record €40 million. The big-money spending has failed to bring further success, with Zenit now stuck in third at home and crashing out of the Champions League.
CSKA Moscow lead the Russian title race, but failed to qualify for even the Europa League group stage this season, months after reaching the Champions League knockout stages in a record run. Spartak Moscow returned to Europe’s top competition only to lose five of their six group games.
One team to enjoy an unquestionably positive 2012 were Anzhi Makhachkala, who reaped the rewards of exuberant spending under star coach Guus Hiddink, starting the year as mid-table performers and ending it as true title contenders, second in the 2012-13 winter break.
Even as stars such as Hulk flocked to Russia, football remained riven by scandal. Zenit’s top fan group published a document calling for a ban on black and gay players at the club, and the team’s fans were blamed for injuring an opposition player with a flare in a case that revived fears of crowd trouble at the 2018 World Cup.
In tennis, Sharapova had a strong year, completing the career Grand Slam with her win at Roland Garros in June. She added Olympic silver in London in August, with Nadia Petrova and Maria Kirilenko picking up doubles bronze.
The women’s success could not hide the continuing decline of the men’s game, as Russia finished its second year in a row without a player in the ATP top 20 and crashed out of the top level of the Davis Cup for the first time.
Russian Tennis Federation president Shamil Tarpishchev, who doubles as Davis Cup and Fed Cup captain, added to the gloom when he declared in September that “nobody cares” about tennis in Russia.
The Russia-based KHL hockey league stepped up to challenge the NHL for the first time on home soil, taking advantage of the North American league’s lockout to televise games in the U.S. and Canada and recruit many of the game’s top stars on temporary contracts. The KHL’s Gagarin Cup for 2011-12 went to Dynamo Moscow, but only after a doping scandal engulfed the team’s opponents in the final.
Russia’s national team won the world championship for the third time in five years and look strong for their home Winter Olympics in 2014 after crushing all comers in their home stage of the Euro Hockey Tour this month.
Another contender for Sochi 2014 gold is figure skating star Evgeni Plushenko, who started the year with his seventh European title and ended it with a 10th Russian title, but was otherwise absent from official competition.
December saw figure skating’s Grand Prix finals visit Sochi for the first test event at the Olympic Park, while the mountain venues played host to a string of top-level events.
Next year sees more test events as the resort city gears up to host Russia's first Olympics since the 1980 Moscow Games, while Kazan is to hold the 2013 University Games, offering the promise of a bright future.
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Russia has surged ahead on the foreign policy stage, but this is not enough to remain a great power. The tough-minded policies and masterful diplomacy of Russia’s leadership have maximized the country’s position in the world, and are now the main source of its international influence and prestige. Russia’s foreign policy in the next decade depends entirely on what happens at home.