SOCHI, Russia — Russia's athletes in the Winter Olympics received expert tutoring in English before the Games in a Kremlin-backed bid to boost the country's international reputation.
A special program was set up in conjunction with the Russian Olympic Committee to increase the English skills of its 226-member team as part of Russia's charm offensive led by President Vladimir Putin.
"The athletes need English to travel, communicate freely with colleagues from around the world and foreign media," ROC chief Alexander Zhukov said in a statement by EF English First, the language company that provided the lessons. "Knowledge and experience, which everyone gets during the Games, form the post-Olympic heritage, which drives our country forward."
The advanced lessons were made available to every athlete and involved online learning as well as face-to-face instruction.
The focus on English shows Russia's determination to have these Games improve its reputation in the eyes of the international community, even if much of the publicity has been negative due to incomplete infrastructure and human rights issues.
The English lessons conflict rather oddly with the guidelines of the Russian sports ministry, which actively discouraged athletes from giving interviews in the lead-up to the Olympics for fear of giving away training secrets before the competition.
Now, however, that appears to have been overridden by official government policy that is part of an overall scheme to increase language skills around the country.
Russia's Economic Development ministry wants 20 percent of federal officials to be fluent in other languages within the next six years, and Putin has embraced the more open international approach himself. The president's speech to the International Olympic Committee in solid English in 2007 was seen as being critical in Sochi's gaining host city rights. Seven years later, even Putin's English is stronger.
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One of the athletes who went through the program was long-track speedskater Ivan Skobrev, a silver and bronze medalist from Vancouver. He had attained a passable level of English from years of competing internationally but improved so much over the past year that he was chosen by the Sochi Olympics organizing committee to tape a video, in near-perfect English, to welcome visitors from around the world.
After finishing seventh in the men's 5,000 meters on Saturday, Skobrev was interviewed at length in English, as have been many other Russian athletes in the early days of these Games.
It provides a significant contrast to previous years, when most Russian competitors were largely unable to communicate with the international media, adding to the air of mystery around their country.
Many of the members of the Russian hockey team have various levels of English fluency as a result of playing in the National Hockey League.
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