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Better than March Madness: 10 miracles from the history of Russian sports

Meduza

In the next 10 days, many of Meduza’s American readers will be embroiled in a world of brackets and three-pointers as the NCAA men’s basketball tournament reaches its peak. To compliment — or distract from — those March Madness festivities, Meduza presents 10 gripping stories from the history of Soviet and Russian sports as selected and retold by sports journalist Ivan Kalashnikov.

The Dynamo soccer team’s tour of Britain

1945

Dynamo and Cardiff City players shake hands before a match. Dynamo won 10 – 1. November 17, 1945
Western Mail Archive / Mirrorpix / Vida Press

In the fall of 1945, the Moscow-based soccer team Dynamo, its scoring power increased by the presence of forward Vsevolod Bobrov from the rival Moscow team CDKA, arrived in Great Britain for a nationwide tour. The goal of the endeavor was to strengthen ties between Britain and the Soviet Union shortly after their allied victory in the Second World War. However, the trip almost immediately took on the air of a good spy novel: the Soviet delegation arrived at the airport, but no one was there to greet it, Dynamo’s interpreter would say one word for every ten that were said to her (withering slightly under the gaze of her KGB guides), and English reporters sneaked into the Soviet team’s training sessions.

Then, events began taking on a triumphant turn. In their first match against Chelsea, playing in front of a record-breaking crowd 100,000 strong, Dynamo allowed two goals before raising the score to a 3 – 3 tie by the end of the match. Then, the team earned two victories in Cardiff and then in London before striking another tie in Scotland. Its overall result was positive. The Brits were in a state of high excitement over Soviet soccer, but the Cold War nonetheless approached: just two weeks after Dynamo’s tour, George Orwell wrote that sports would never be capable of strengthening international relations. Then, four months later, Winston Churchill gave his “Iron Curtain” speech.

The Olympic biathlon relay in Sapporo

1972

Alexander Tikhonov races in Sapporo. January 16, 1972
Viktor Budan / TASS

Alexander Tikhonov took the first leg of the men’s biathlon relay. Already known as one of the greatest athletes in the history of the sport, which combines cross country skiing with rifle shooting, Tikhonov would later become known as Mister Biathlon. As he began the race, Tikhonov reached his usual devilish speed, but when he arrived at the second firing range, his nerves began to get the better of him. Tikhonov missed twice, dove into a shaky sprint, and broke one of his skis. At first, he continued the race on one leg until a biathlete from the East German team extended one of his own skis to Tikhonov, perhaps in the name of socialist brotherhood. The Soviet star managed to ski for one more kilometer, at which point he finally received an emergency pair of skis. Tikhonov finished his leg of the relay last, but his teammate Rinat Safin ultimately caught up with all of his competitors, and team USSR skied its way to a gold medal despite it all.

The story of the 1972 Olympics would do well as the introduction to a biopic of Tikhonov, whose life was full of dramatic moments. After concluding his athletic career, he became a businessman before nearly causing the collapse of Russia’s Biathlete Union when he attempted to avoid legal responsibility for an attack on fellow biathlete Aman Tuleyev. After receiving amnesty, Tikhonov became a biathlon blogger notorious for his furiously critical posts.

Rodnina and Zaitsev at the Lake Placid Olympics

1980

Irina Rodnina and Alexander Zaitsev receive their gold medals at the Winter Olympic Games in Lake Placid, New York. February 24, 1980.
Dmitry Donskoi / Sputnik / Scanpix / LETA

A year before the Olympics were to be held in the United States, the seemingly undefeatable figure skater Irina Rodnina had a baby. At the time, the 29-year-old was skating in the pairs division with Alexander Zaitsev, and she already had two Olympic gold medals and ten world championships under her belt. She could have gone quietly and ended her career, but her highly forceful coach, Tatiana Tarasova, convinced Rodnina to compete in a third Olympic Games in hopes of dampening the fervor that then surrounded the American pair of Babilonia and Gardner. In Rodnina’s absence, the two had won the 1979 World Championships.

The Lake Placid Olympics took place at the peak of the athletic rivalry between the U.S. and the USSR, and the atmosphere was made even more intense by the games’ location on American soil. It was a tense political time as well: Soviet forces had already invaded Afghanistan, but the U.S. and its allies had not yet made the decision to boycott the upcoming Summer Games in Moscow. The American ice hockey team had already given their fans the Miracle on Ice, beating out their Soviet rivals, but Rodnina and Zaitsev responded with a flawless performance in the figure skating competition, and their American competitors withdrew after an injury. Rodnina became a three-time Olympic champion, and as the Soviet national anthem rang out over the ice, she shed tears of joy from the top of the podium.

The Soviet soccer team’s victory in Seoul

1988

Brazilian soccer player Luís Carlos attempts to kick the ball past Soviet goalie Dmitry Kharin during the finals of the Olympic soccer tournament in Seoul. October 1, 1988
TASS

The Soviet football team won the 1956 Olympics and won the European Championship in 1960, but earning the gold medal in the Seoul Olympics might have been the greatest accomplishment in the team’s history. The team’s coach at the time, Anatoly Byshovets, was so eccentric that the famed singer-songwriter Vladimir Vysotsky included him in one of his songs: Byshovets used the minutes immediately before each match to philosophize and recite poetry to his players. In the 1988 final, his team faced a set of Brazilian stars that included future 1994 world champions Taffarel, Bebeto, and super-scorer Romario (who would put more than 1000 balls into the net throughout his career). The match was decided in overtime when commentator Vladimir Maslachenko, himself quite a dramatic figure, shouted what has since become a legendary phrase: “Savichev, run and score, I’m begging you!” Savichev did just that.

Karpov vs. Kasparov

1990

The world championship chess match between Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov. New York, December 11, 1990
Svetlana Mostovets / TASS

The most intense competition for the title of world chess champion, at least since Bobby Fisher and Boris Spassky’s match in Reykjavik, took place in 1990. The fifth championship match in a row between Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov was held in New York, and even before the first move was made, Kasparov made a political move by placing the Russian tricolor flag opposite the Soviet flag that accompanied Karpov’s name. After two parties, Karpov’s side submitted an official complaint, and after four, the chess federation decided to remove both flags entirely, but it was already understood that not only two grandmasters but two whole systems were up against each other on the board.

Kasparov won and received the largest cash prize in the history of chess. He also began thinking for the first time of creating his own world for the game where he could play by his own rules. In 1993, he split with the FIDE and thereby lost his official title. 20 years later, he returned to New York, this time to live their permanently as a political dissident in exile.

The Davis Cup final

2002

Mikhail Yuzhny competing for the Davis Cup and holding the Cup itself. November 27, 2002
Dmitry Azarov / Kommersant

The history of Russian participation in the world’s premier team tennis tournament has been chock full of drama. For example, in 1995, Andrey Chesnokov reached the deciding set of the deciding match in the Davis Cup semifinal against Germany before holding on for nine match points, winning the set with a score of 14 – 12, and falling to the ground with a grunt in a state of total exhaustion. (Five days later, he received an award for his courage.) Nonetheless, the 2002 final was more important, at least in strictly hierarchical terms.

The Russian men’s team played against the French in Paris. Marat Safin, the wunderkind of Russian tennis, won two matches, but Yevgeny Kafelnikov, the team’s veteran, played with an injury and lost both in his own party and in a pairs match with Safin. With the match score at 2 – 2, 20-year-old Mikhail Yuzhny walked onto the court. He had been allowed onto the team at the very last minute and was still recovering from a state of personal grief: his father had died two months before the match. Yuzhny lost the first two sets but then received a word of advice from team captain Shamil Tarpishchev: “Misha, you shouldn’t be able to see me or your opponent or the stands. Only the ball. Play against the ball.” Yuzhny won the next three sets, Russia won the Davis Cup for the first time in its history, and Boris Yeltsin, who actively encouraged the sport of tennis in Russia, compared the win to the USSR’s famous victory over the Canadian hockey team.

Alexei Nemov at the Athens Olympics

2004

Alexei Nemov attempts to calm the crowd. August 23, 2004
Karl Mondon / Contra Costa Times / MCT/ Sipa USA / Vida Press

Russia’s best gymnast had won 12 Olympic medals in Atlanta and Sydney when he arrived at his final Games in Athens expecting to end his career with a bang. However, when Nemov completed his high bar routine, he received a set of scores that disappointed not only him and his coach but the entire audience, which began to shout and whistle, bringing the tournament to a halt. After several minutes, Nemov himself walked in front of the crowd and motioned for its members to quiet down so that the noise would not disturb the next competitor. It was then that the head of the judges’ committee managed to convince the rest of the judges to change Nemov’s score.

Nemov nonetheless left Athens without a final medal, but he did leave with the kind of story that not every victor can boast.

Victory at the Eurobasket

2007

Jasper Juinen / Getty Images

During the 1992 Olympics, the American basketball team included NBA stars for the first time. They crushed their competitors one after another and earned the nickname The Dream Team. Since then, the most interesting international basketball tournament has been the European Championship, where each of the teams still faces actual competition. In that context, the Russian team began taking a steady downturn after the fall of the USSR, and the team arrived at the 2007 Eurobasket without hoping for any particular level of success. Most of the team consisted of players who were second string in their own clubs, and even Andrei Kirilenko, the group’s most reliable member and an NBA player himself, had ended up on the Utah Jazz bench more and more often that season.

Those players were led by the Israeli David Blatt, the first foreign coach in the history of the Russian team. Only two people came to the team’s first practice session. Journalists grumbled that the American-born Jon Robert Holden, a naturalized Russian citizen, was quickly becoming the team’s natural leader. However, Russia dealt losses to Serbia and Greece in the tournament’s preliminary rounds before beating France and Lithuania in the playoffs and landing in the final game against Spain — the best European team of that decade — in Madrid itself. The match was preceded by a classic dramatic twist: Kirilenko’s wife, Maria Lopatova, forgot her credentials in the team’s hotel, and their bus had to turn back around to retrieve them before departing for the match.

Russia beat Spain with a score of 60 – 59. Holden was responsible for the deciding basket. The game’s MVP title went to Kirilenko.

The hockey world championship in Canada

2008

Claudio Bresciani / Scanpix / LETA

By 2008, the Soviet school of hockey had continuously provided stars for the NHL for many years even after the fall of the USSR itself while the Russian team steadily lost its footing. It seemed entirely unable to win an Olympic tournament and had only one world championship to its name from 1993. The world championship in hockey was not even a particularly prestigious tournament, and NHL teams typically did not send their best players to compete in it, but in Canada in 2008, an unusually formidable group of players gathered to face off on the ice.

It was the host team and their Russian rivals who reached the final, where they gave the crowd an unbelievable show that included well-known stars (Fyodorov, Ovechkin) as well as a few less successful NHL players (Semin, Kovalchuk). After sinking to a 2 – 4 disadvantage, Russia caught up and forced the match into overtime. Then, Ilya Kovalchuk, who served as a kind of universal symbol of the unrealized potential of Russian hockey, scored the deciding goal. Vladislav Tretyak compared the victory to the 1972 Summit Series. All of Russia took to the streets in celebration.

And not for the last time that year, it turned out. Just a few months later, Russia would beat the Netherlands in the quarterfinals of the European soccer championships, and history began to repeat itself.

The London Olympics volleyball team

2012

Dominic Ebenbichler / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

The Russian men’s volleyball team had not won at the Olympics since 1980 and did not seem to be a contender for that title in London at all. On top of that, its opponent in the final was an extremely strong team from Brazil that had beat Russia in a preliminary round 3 – 0. The final match also began with two lost sets, but then Russian coach Vladimir Alenko thought up a brilliant tactical play that allowed two players to switch places without being detected. Russia made a comeback, destroying the Brazilians. It was the last major, unexpected Russian victory before the country’s streak of doping scandals began. The win had no particularly compelling social or political background, but the athletic drama itself was enough to keep the audience on the edge of their seats.

Ivan Kalashnikov

Translation by Hilah Kohen