Russia's history at the Winter Olympics has been interrupted multiples times by political upheaval far removed from the snow and ice of competition. Despite these challenges, the country's athletes have proven to be among the top participants in winter sports. Though the flags have changed, Russian dominance has been seen at the Olympics in many popular disciplines, including ice hockey and figure skating.
In hosting the 2014 Sochi Olympics, expectations for stellar performances by the host country will be higher than ever. Here is a look at the people, history, Olympic heritage, and outlook in Sochi for the country of Russia.
Population: 142.5 million
President: Vladimir Putin
All-Time Medal Count: Russia possesses a storied Olympic history, but it is difficult to quantify because the country competed for many years under the banner of the Soviet Union. Despite the USSR's final appearance at 1988 Calgary, the former nation still ranks fifth on the all-time medal list at the Winter Games. Russia has sent a team to every Winter Olympics under its own flag since 1994 Albertville. Even limited to those 20 years, the country has accrued 91 medals, including 36 gold, 29 silver, and 26 bronze.
Best Sports: Russia has only earned gold in four winter sports since 1994, but has dominated those pursuits. In no sport has Russia been more impressive than cross-country skiing, where the nation has gained 28 medals (13 gold) over the past five Olympics. Russia has additionally fared well in figure skating (21 medals, 11 gold) and biathlon (20 medals, 9 gold). The country's final golds occurred in speed skating, where 10 overall medals have been earned since 1994. Finally, though Russia has yet to triumph as Olympic champion, the nation is a perennial favorite in men's ice hockey, where its team earned silver at 1998 Nagano.
Despite a few appearances at the Summer Olympics in the early part of the 20th century, Russia did not participate in the Winter Games until 1994. With Russians competing for the Soviet Union, the nation's athletes otherwise made their initial appearances at the Winter Olympics in 1956, when the USSR impressively topped the overall medal count at Cortina d'Ampezzo in its debut performance.
The Soviet Union would use Russian participants to compete in the next eight Winter Games. During that near 40-year stretch, the USSR would rack up 194 total medals and dominate many sports, including pairs skating, ice dancing, cross-country skiing, and men's ice hockey.
Many are familiar with this dominance in hockey due to the famed "Miracle on Ice" game in 1980. With a team composed primarily of Russian natives, the Soviet squad had captured four consecutive gold medals prior to the dramatic American upset in a semifinal matchup at Lake Placid. In nine appearances at the Olympics, USSR hockey team captured 7 golds, 1 silver, and 1 bronze.
Since Russia's re-emergence under its own flag in 1994, the country has remained potent in its historic disciplines. With the continuing popularity of figure skating to worldwide television audiences, several Russians have used this forum to become stars. The 2006 gold medalist in men's figure skating, Yevgeny Plushenko, has arguably become the most prominent Russian Olympian of recent times.
Though Moscow hosted the boycotted 1980 Summer Olympics, the Sochi Games will be the first time Russia has welcomed the Winter Olympics. The decision was not without controversy, as the Black Sea town was never considered a home of winter sports. All its infrastructure was quickly assembled and mountain-based skiing events will occur about 35 miles away in the improved resort of Krasnaya Polyana.
Prominent Olympic Medal Winners:
Yevgeny Plushenko (RUS): Men's figure skating, 3 medals -- 1 gold, 2 silver, 3-time Olympian (2002-2010)
Yuliya Chepalova (RUS): Women's cross-country skiing, 6 medals -- 3 gold, 2 silver, 1 bronze, 3-time Olympian (1998-2006)
Olga Zaytseva (RUS): Women's biathlon, 3 medals -- 2 gold, 1 silver, 3-time Olympian (2002-2010)
Albina Akhatova (RUS): Women's biathlon, 5 medals -- 1 gold, 1 silver, 3 bronze, 3-time Olympian (1998-2006)
Sergei Makarov (USSR): Men's ice hockey, 3 medals -- 2 gold, 1 silver, 3-time Olympian (1980-1988)
Irina Rodnina (USSR): Pairs figure skating, 3 medals -- 3 gold, 3-time Olympian (1972-1980)
Athletes to Watch in Sochi:
Men's ice hockey team: After a disappointing sixth place in 2010, the Russians will be determined to medal before home fans at Sochi. The squad will be coached by former Olympic gold medalist Zinetula Bilyaletdinov and packed with NHL talent. Captained by two-time Stanley Cup champion Pavel Datsyuk, it will possess scoring punch from familiar All-Stars, such as Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, and Ilya Kovalchuk. Sergei Bobrovsky of the Columbus Blue Jackets is expected to be Russia's primary goalie.
Yevgeny Plushenko: The return of this gold medalist to the Olympics is notable, since it cost current national champion and 18 year-old sensation Maxim Kovtun his first chance at Russia's sole spot in men's figure skating competition . This will be the fourth Games for Plushenko, who is ancient by his sport's standards at 31 years old. Yet, the veteran can execute moves that few others even attempt. He would love to end his career with another medal before a friendly audience at Sochi.
Viktor Ahn: Formerly known as Ahn Hyun-Soo, this short track speed skater previously competed for South Korea at the 2002 and 2006 Olympics. Ahn captured four medals at Turin, including individual golds in the 1,000m and 1,500m events and a share of gold in the 5,000m team relay. Failing to qualify for 2010 Vancouver, Ahn grew frustrated with the support from the South Korean team. In response, the 28-year-old began training in Russia, and received citizenship (and a new name). The Sochi Games is likely Ahn's last chance at another medal.
Julia Lipnitskaia: This 15-year-old women's figure skater has the potential to become a cereal-box star of the Olympic Games. Since making the leap from junior competition, Lipnitskaia has quickly accrued no shortage of honors, including surprisingly taking gold in the ladies' singles event at the European Championships earlier this month.
Adelina Sotnikova: Two years older than her teammate, the more polished Sotnikova offers similar potential to make a lasting impression in Sochi. In fact, the 17-year-old figure skater claimed silver at the recent European Championships, where she bested strong Olympic contender Carolina Kostner.
Jeff Briscoe is a longtime fan of Olympic competition and a regular contributor to the Yahoo Contributor Network. He will be talking Sochi 2014 on The Sports Train radio show in Southwest Florida.
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