Russia targets home 2014 Olympics sweep

Dmitry Zaks
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Russia's winter sports super stars claimed just three gold medals in Vancouver two years ago

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev (left) and President Vladimir Putin pictured in March at the Rosa Khutor resort in Krasnaya Polyana, where the Sochi Winter Olympics alpine skiing events will take place. Ice hockey and skiing-mad Russia on Wednesday set its sights on a top of the podium finish at its home Winter Olympic Games in 2014 after coming 11th two years ago

Ice hockey and skiing-mad Russia on Wednesday set itself the "unbelievably" tough target of finishing top of the podium at its home Winter Olympic Games after placing a humiliating 11th two years ago.

Russia's skaters and other winter sport superstars came home from Vancouver to resounding jeers after claiming just three gold medals in their worst performance ever while seeing bitter rival and host nation Canada grab 14.

The team's devastating defeat sent shock waves through the Russian sports system because it came just as the final preparations were getting underway for the 2014 Games that President Vladimir Putin secured against long odds for Sochi.

The head of Russia's Olympic Committee said the job of finishing first in the Black Sea resort -- a place popular with summer tourists for its rare Russian palm trees -- was non-negotiable, even if difficult in the extreme.

"We have a target -- to win first place as a team," Alexander Zhukov told reporters.

"This will be fairly hard to do. In fact, unbelievably so," the government veteran and close Putin ally conceded. "But we have pretty good potential."

Russia's spirits have been lifted by a better-than-feared performance at this year's Summer Games in London that saw the team claim the fourth-best haul of gold medals and finish third by number of podium finishes.

Putin -- a judo black belt who is learning ice hockey in time for Sochi and has built his political career around an action-man image that achieves results -- said Russia should be proud of its latest Summer Games performance.

"We received 10 more medals than in 2008. This is an unconditional success," he told the winning Olympians at a special Kremlin awards ceremony.

But he also urged Russia to reach higher as it seeks to restore the sporting success of its Soviet past.

"We have to set ambitious goals -- the most ambitious -- and then we are almost guaranteed success," said Putin.

The fear of Russia being humiliated in its beloved winter sports on home snow and ice has prompted federations to effectively dump the old squad and focus on urgent youth training.

Russia's sporting establishment has also faced criticism for attracting foreign coaches to underperforming but high-profile squads such as women's biathlon.

"We have to get the best trainers," the country's Olympic chief said on Thursday. "And if he is a foreigner, let him be a foreigner."

Perhaps the biggest emphasis of all has been placed on developing what Zhukov called "non-traditional" sports such as snowboarding that had until recently been almost unknown in Russia.

Zhukov said the country's youngsters have been performing much better than their senior counterparts at recent competitions.

"A new generation is growing up now," he noted.

But all this optimism has been offset by the reality that Russia's Sochi performance may ultimately suffer because the home team never had the time to test all the new venues that are being built at exorbitant cost.

Russia last week brought criminal cases against two firms suspected of swindling $250 million in state funds assigned to the construction of the main stadium and luge track -- a part of a reportedly broader $550 million probe.

Officials had warned that mismanagement could delay the Olympic Stadium's mid-2013 commissioning and Zhukov lamented that not enough venues were already in place.

"We would dearly love to have two full seasons for breaking in these new courses," said Zhukov. "We would like to use the home field advantage."