In our article “Top 6 Wonders of Russian Sports” we will tell you about six of the brightest and most incredible events in the history of Soviet-Russian sports.
Many sports observers today are mesmerized by the events in world sports – NBA, NHL, English Premier League, etc. The history of these tournaments is certainly great and rich in interesting details. But Soviet and Russian sports in many ways even surpass these leagues and championships, and there have always been enough bright and dramatic moments in it.
Sapporo Biathlon Relay (1972)
Alexander Tikhonov took part in 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 later became known as “Mr. Biathlon.” As the race began, Tikhonov developed his usual devilish speed, but when he arrived at the second firing line, nerves began to take over. Tikhonov missed twice, sprinted and broke one ski.
At first he continued the race on one leg until a biathlete from the East German team gave Tikhonov one of his skis, perhaps in the name of socialist brotherhood. The Soviet star managed to ski another kilometer before finally getting a spare pair of skis. Tikhonov finished last in the relay, but his teammate Rinat Safin eventually caught up with all of his rivals, and the Soviet team made its way to the gold medal despite all odds.
The story of the 1972 Olympics could be the introduction to a biographical movie about Tikhonov, whose life was full of dramatic moments. After finishing his athletic career, he became a businessman before nearly causing the dissolution of the Russian Biathlon Union when he tried to avoid legal responsibility for assaulting fellow biathlete Aman Tuleyev. After receiving amnesty, Tikhonov became a biathlon blogger known for his fiercely critical posts.
USSR national soccer team in Seoul (1988)
The Soviet soccer team won the 1956 Olympics and won the European Championship in 1960.
Winning the gold medal at the Seoul Olympics may have been the greatest achievement in the team’s history. The team’s then coach Anatoly Byshovets was so eccentric that the famous singer and songwriter Vladimir Vysotsky included him in one of his songs: Byshovets used the minutes immediately before each match to philosophize and read poetry to his players.
In the 1988 final, his team faced Brazilian stars, including future 1994 world champions Taffarel, Bebeto and super-bombardier Romario (who scored over 1,000 goals in his career). The outcome of the match was decided in overtime when commentator Vladimir Maslachenko, himself a very dramatic figure, shouted a phrase that has since become legendary: “Savichev, run and score, I’m begging you!” Savichev did just that.
Davis Cup Final (2002)
The history of Russia’s participation in the world’s premier team tennis tournament is full of drama. In 1995, for example, Andrei Chesnokov reached the deciding game of the Davis Cup semifinals against Germany before holding nine matchballs, winning the set 14-12 and grumbling as he collapsed to the ground in a state of utter exhaustion. (Five days later, he received an award for courage.) Still, 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 prodigy of Russian tennis, won two matches, but team veteran Evgeny Kafelnikov played injured and lost both his game and his doubles match against Safin. With the match score at 2-2, 20-year-old Mikhail Youzhny took the court. He was admitted to 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.
Youzhny lost the first two sets, but then received advice from team captain Shamil Tarpischev: “Misha, you must not see me, your opponent or the stands. Only the ball. Play against the ball.” Youzhny won the next three sets, Russia won the Davis Cup for the first time in its history, and Boris Yeltsin, who actively encouraged tennis in Russia, compared the victory to the USSR’s famous victory over Canada’s hockey team.
EuroBasket victory (2007)
During the 1992 Olympics, the U.S. basketball team had its first NBA stars on the roster. They crushed their competitors one by one and earned the nickname “Dream Team”.
Since then, the most interesting international basketball tournament has been the European Championship, where each team still faces real competition. In this context, after the collapse of the USSR, the Russian national team began a steady decline and arrived at EuroBasket 2007 without hoping for any particular success. Most of the team was made up of second-tier players at their clubs, and even Andrei Kirilenko, the most reliable member of the group and an NBA player himself, was gone.
These players were led by Israeli David Blatt, the first foreign coach in the history of the Russian national team. Only two people showed up for the team’s first practice. Journalists grumbled that American-born John Robert Holden, a naturalized Russian citizen, was quickly becoming the team’s natural leader.
However, Russia defeated Serbia and Greece in the preliminary rounds of the tournament, and then beat France and Lithuania in the playoffs to reach 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 ID at the team’s hotel and their bus had to turn around to pick them up before leaving for the match.
Russia defeated Spain with a score of 60:59. Holden made the decisive shot. Kirilenko was named MVP of the game.
World Hockey Championship in Canada (2008)
By 2008, the Soviet hockey school had been continuously supplying NHL stars for years, even after the collapse of the USSR itself, while the Russian team was gradually losing its balance. It seemed utterly incapable of winning an Olympic tournament, with only one World Championship to its credit since 1993.
The World Cup of Hockey wasn’t even a particularly prestigious tournament, and NHL teams didn’t usually send their best players to compete in it, but in Canada in 2008, an unusually impressive group of players gathered to battle it out on the ice.
It was the hosts and their Russian opponents who advanced to the finals, where they put on an incredible show for the public, featuring both well-known stars (Fedorov, Ovechkin) and a few lesser NHL players (Semin, Kovalchuk). After Russia was trailing 2:4, it caught up with its opponent and took the game into overtime. Then the decisive goal was scored by Ilya Kovalchuk, who served as a kind of universal symbol of the unrealized potential of Russian hockey. Vladislav Tretiak compared the victory to the 1972 Summit Series. All of Russia took to the streets to celebrate.
And, as it turned out, not for the last time this year. Just a few months later, Russia beat the Netherlands in the quarterfinals of the European soccer championship, and history began to repeat itself.
Volleyball team in London (2012)
The Russian men’s volleyball team had not won at the Olympic Games since 1980 and did not look like a contender for the title in London at all. To top it all off, its opponent in the final was an extremely strong team from Brazil, which had beaten Russia 3-0 in the preliminary round. The final match also started with two lost sets, but then Russian coach Vladimir Alekno came up with a brilliant tactical move.
Russia made a comeback by destroying the Brazilians. It was Russia’s last major and unexpected victory before the country’s streak of doping scandals began. The victory had no particularly compelling social or political underpinnings, but the sporting drama itself was enough to keep viewers in suspense.