From Russia with love: five outstanding Russian Olympians relive their mostly glory days in London
Sunday, 29 April 2012
The hushed and swanky surrounds of the Grosvenor House Apartments in Park Lane offered a suitably smart venue for five of Russia's most illustrious Olympians this week.
Invited over by VisitBritain to do what Russian tourists do best for the best part of a week, 2008 Olympic silver medallist and former world number one tennis player Dinara Safina and 1996 Olympic 800 and 1500 metres winner Svetlana Masterkova have been out and about around the capital in company with Alexei Nemov, the all-around gymnastics champion in 2000, Maria Kiseleva, three-times Olympic synchronised swimming champion and Buvaisar Saitiev, the three-times Olympic free-style wrestling champion.
The trip, working under the banner of Road to London, has been covered by the major Russian TV networks and has seen the group take in the Olympic Park site and conduct a coaching session at a local school as well as visiting other tourist attractions such as the Victoria and Albert Museum, Wimbledon and the West End, where they saw the musical Stomp.
While VisitBritain are hoping the publicity will persuade more Russians to spend their tourist cash here – Russian tourists apparently spend twice the average of other tourists when in Britain – the five Olympians have been making the most of their opportunities.
For Safina and Masterkova (pictured below second right, plus second and third image down), the visit to the Olympic Park sparked memories of Olympics past – and they were almost all good ones.
For Masterkova, the process of reflection was an agreeable one – save for the uncomfortable feeling of heat on the back of her legs, which was generated by a strange naked-flame-behind-smoked-glass installation which was positioned alongside a table groaning with healthy salads and proper orange juice in a general dining area set within a lofty, open courtyard of rooms.
Moving forward with a grin halfway through her conversation, she revealed for the first time that she had not wanted to do the longer distance in Atlanta after winning her 800m gold, but had been told to carry on by her coach.
"After I had won the 800 metres in Atlanta I said to my coach, Svetlana Styrkina, that I didn't want to run the 1500 metres. She told me that my having a place in the 1500m meant that a runner back home did not have it. She said to me: 'You can't refuse now.'
"And so I ran. I was so confident in myself I didn't count how long to run. I never counted the laps in the 1500 metres. I just waited for the sound of the bell. It is amazing – I have never said this before. But it is the truth."
Strykina finished fifth in the 800m final at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, where Masterkova's compatriot Tatyana Kazankina became the founder member of the club for women winning the 800 and 1500m double at the Olympics – a club which now has a third member, of course, in Kelly Holmes.
"I know Kelly personally and I can't ever stop respecting that she is a double Olympic champion," Masterkova said, adding with a grin: "It didn't surprise either Ana Fidelio Qirot or me when she won the 800 and 1500m in Athens. We had both retired from the sport by then. So we gave her chances!"
Masterkova, who married road racing cyclist Asiat Saitov in 1994, now concentrates much of her sporting focus on her 17-year-old daughter, Anastasia Saitova, who within the last six months has risen almost 300 places in the world junior rankings to 69th and is now hoping to play in the junior French Open at Roland Garros.
"After running in the 1991 World Championships I had several injuries, and I decided to have some rest from the sport," she said. "After my daughter Anastasia was born I returned to running but I had a calmness about it which worked very well for me. At first I would just run – I would run 20km a day. I had a different attitude to training after having my daughter – because it meant I had to be away from her, I started working so hard."
The hard work paid off for her as she returned to action in 1996, winning bronze in the 800m at the European Indoor Championships in Stockholm before going on to complete her double in Atlanta ahead of the favourites, Qirot and Maria Mutola.
For Safina (pictured below), the memories of her Olympic medal-winning performance in Beijing four years ago were tempered only slightly by the fact that she won silver rather than gold as she lost to her compatriot Elena Dementieva in three sets, serving 17 double faults, with Vera Zvonereva completing the Russian sweep by taking the bronze medal.
"I was really disappointed," she said. "But after a while I thought about it and realised that it was an honour to represent my country and to win a medal at an event that happened only once every four years. And I was proud of my achievement.
"The fact that I was representing my country gave me such energy during the competition. After winning my quarter-final at 3am I had to play the semi-final later the same day. So I said to myself 'I am competing for my country. I have to forget that I am tired.' It is so different from playing a Grand Slam."
"Although the Olympic event will be held at Wimbledon it will be very different for the players. When you compete in Grand Slams you compete for yourself, and maybe you hear people calling your name. When you are at an Olympics you hear the difference straight away – the crowd are chanting for Russia, and you feel such a sense of responsibility.
"For the Russian team it is going to be difficult this year. In Beijing we inspired each other as the competition went on. It was a very special time then – we had five of the players in the top ten, and we all kept pushing each other during the Games.
Unfortunately, Safina's prospect of returning to the Olympic arena at Wimbledon this summer has been ruined by the back injury which has prevented her playing for almost a year now.
"I have a stress fracture of my vertebrae low down in my spine," Safina said. "I can't play tennis – I am so afraid. I went to the gym but I wasn't able to do anything because I was in such pain. Sometimes I go a little bit for a run – this morning I was able to go around Hyde Park for around 45 minutes. I didn't realise the Olympic triathlon is going to be held there. But I have to be really careful.
"I will make a decision about my career at the end of the year. What I don't want to do is make a quick decision, and then go back on it. I don't like it when players do that. When I am done, I am done.
"I don't have a chance to play in London at the Olympics, but I hope the team will invite me – I would love to be here to support the others. As well as the tennis, I would love to go and see some volleyball, a sport I really like.
"Maybe I could get to the athletics too. Yelena Isinbayeva, in the pole vault, is one of our big hopes to win another gold."
Safina used to share an apartment in Monte Carlo with fellow Russian tax exile Isinbayeva, and still has a property there. But for most of her time she is living in Moscow, where she is studying law. That academic pursuit has helped give her direction in what she admits has been a bewildering period of her life.
"When I stopped playing in May it was really difficult," she said. "As a full-time player your life is simple. You eat, then you train, then you eat, then you train some more. Then it is time to play. Then one day you wake up and it's 'OK. What do I have to do?' "
Back in Moscow, she has also been visiting prospective Olympians to share her experiences of Beijing 2008. "I went and spoke to ten of the taekwondo group the other day," she said, "I told them 'You have to enjoy yourself. If you don't enjoy that moment, when you are at the Olympics and participating for your country, what can you enjoy?"
Enjoyment should be a part of the Olympics, of course. But Safina knows all about the weight of home expectation which was a factor in Isinbayeva stepping away from the sport for almost a year before returning in 2011. Although the Olympic champion and multiple world record holder failed to win a medal at the IAAF World Championships in Daegu, she indicated her return to form and fitness by winning the World Indoor title in Istanbul last month.
"When you are so much better than everyone for so long it is hard to keep finding the motivation," she said. "Maybe she couldn't find the fire she needed unless she took a break. But she has come back so well, and she is an inspiration." So too, with her talent and attitude, is Dinara Safina.
Mike Rowbottom, one of Britain's most talented sportswriters, has covered the past five Summer and four Winter Olympics for The Independent. Previously he has worked for the Daily Mail, The Times, The Observer, the Sunday Correspondent and The Guardian. He is now chief feature writer for insidethegames. Rowbottom's Twitter feed can be accessed here.