President Putin made a speech at the opening ceremony in Siberia
Published in BBC, on Mar 6th, 2019, By Jennifer Monaghan BBC Russia
The Winter Student Games are not, traditionally, one of the more high-profile events in the sporting calendar.
But this year’s competition in Russia is treated with a bit more fanfare than usual – at least by the host nation.
The Games, the 29th edition of the biennial Winter Universiade, opened in Krasnoyarsk on Saturday and run until the 12 March. During that time, more than 3,000 competitors from 58 countries will take part in sports including ice hockey, biathlon, figure skating and alpine skiing.
The importance that Russia is according to the competition is evidenced by the fact the country’s president, Vladimir Putin, was in Siberia to give a speech at the opening ceremony. Later that day, the ceremony was the top news story on state-controlled Channel One and second-top on state channel Rossiya 1.
Since then, there have been regular updates on Russian athletes’ progress on the state rolling news channel Rossiya 24.
“Russia has once again become the centre of global sport,” high-profile anchor Dmitry Kiselyov said during his weekly news review, Vesti Nedeli, on Rossiya 1.
While other nations appear to view the student tournament as a chance for talented – albeit second-tier athletes – to compete on an international level, it seems that Russia is adopting a more hard-nosed approach.
Professional athletes have been included on Russia’s team, all but guaranteeing victory in certain events, while upwards of $1.2bn has been spent on preparations for hosting the events, according to news reports citing the regional governor last year.
Some commentators have concluded that the authorities are using the event to boost patriotic fervour among the domestic audience.
Boosting ranks with professionals
Competition regulations stipulate that only students aged between 17 and 25, and working towards a degree or diploma – or graduates who achieved this in the calendar year preceding the event – are eligible to compete.
There is no demand that athletes have amateur status, however, so Russia is breaking no rules by populating its team with professionals.
A good example of this is the team competing in the blue-chip, men’s ice hockey competition. According to Russia’s Sports.ru website, five of the team’s 22 members play full time in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) – one of the world’s top leagues – and 15 of its players have played in the KHL at least once.
For comparison, the US team features seven players from an amateur national university association “and it is impossible to find out anything else about the others – they are ordinary students”, the Sobesednik website has reported.
Freestyle skier and Olympian Maxim Burov has already won a gold medal, while skier Alisa Zhambalova – who competed in the 2017 Nordic World Ski Championships – has picked up two golds. Double world champion snowboarder Dmitry Loginov will be hoping to join them on the podium.
At time of writing, Russia sit firmly atop the table with 56 medals (17 gold). Their nearest rivals, South Korea, have picked up just 11 medals in total.
Why does Russia care?
Sports.ru commentator Rodion Vlasov has questioned why Russia seems reluctant to let lesser-known athletes take part in the competition. He sees as illuminating a comment made by first vice-president of the Russian Ice Hockey Federation Roman Rotenberg – son of Kremlin ally and tycoon Boris Rotenberg – during the last Winter Universiade.
“There are everyday people who see on TV that our guys are winning,” Rotenberg was quoted as saying.
“Ordinary people feel no less happy than when the national team wins the World Championship. A person comes home and feels positive emotions when he sees that our guys have won. He will work better at the factory and at the office.”
For Vlasov, this idea is the driving force behind interest in all sport in Russia.
The trend for filling the Universiade team with professionals is not limited to this year’s competition. When Russia hosted the Summer Universiade in 2013, 17 Olympians competed on the national team, helping the team to a record-breaking haul of 292 medals (155 gold).
Respected business daily Vedomosti was among those who criticised the inclusion of so many professionals at the time, arguing that it was a “politically motivated decision” that was “convenient from the point of view of internal PR”.
It added that “the Universiade has become an imitation of honest sporting competition. But in this country, where many institutions are themselves an imitation, this is not surprising”.
Such criticism did not find a receptive audience with President Putin, however.
“When we have such great victories, people start lamenting that something is not right,” he said.
“I would like to advise them to play sport themselves and if they have health problems then go to the doctor. If all else fails, try taking Viagra, maybe it would help. And life would be better.”