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Flashback to 2005 - Elena Vaitsekhovkaya interview with AndreiRodionenko

Russia's WAG team at the 2006 European Championships. Clockwise from back left: Evgeny Grebyonkin, Olga Lozhecko, Viktor Gavrichenkov, Vladimir Timonkin, Andrei Rodionenko, Polina Miller, Anna Grudko, Yulia Lozhecko, Irina Isaeva, Nadezhda Ivanova
Picture by Bernard Schwall

The piece you are reading is the very first article in a series entitled 'Flashback to ...'.  As explanation, I am working my way through some archival documents, trying to understand the history of the Russian gymnastics system since 1992.  In this instance I will first provide a commentary to give the context and some background, then a summary of the archival document.  This time, the document is one of the first interviews Rodionenko gave after his appointment as Head Coach.  The interview dates back to 2005.  

According to Alexander Alexandrov, (Alexandrov et al, 2013) Rodionenko was selected for the role of Head Coach at least partly thanks to the influence of his son-in-law, Viacheslav Fetisov, who was at the time Head of the Federal Agency for Physical Culture and Sport (ROSPORT).  Fetisov, a legendary Russian ice hockey player, is a multi-millionaire, a trusted confidante of Vladimir Putin (Russian Mafia, online).

At the time, Russian sport was in transition.  From 1992 to about 2005 the importance of sport had gradually declined to the point that there was virtually no national government funding for artistic gymnastics.  Round Lake had fallen into disrepair; wallpaper was peeling from the walls, a goat tended the lawns to the front of the training halls to save gardening costs, the residential halls were uncomfortable, hardly appropriate to accommodate champions.  

Leonid Arkayev had been Head Coach, in charge of both MAG and WAG, up to and including the 2004 Olympics, where the Russians' best result had been Khorkina's silver in the all around.  Discordance was very much in evidence amongst the coaching teams, Leonid's dismissal was bitter and upsetting and change was in the air.  

Vladimir Putin's 'national champions' policy, first conceived as far back as 1997, began to take shape in 2002 when as President he informed corporate giants like Gazprom that they must sink large investments into Russian sport (Jokisipila, 2011).  Rodionenko's appointment was therefore made at exactly the time that funding decisions were being made and moneys had become available to develop the sport as part of Putin's programme.   Russian gymnastics of course now benefits from significant sponsorship from consumer bank VTB, a government-owned bank.  Much of this money has been spent on a refurbishment of Round Lake and other major facilities across Russia, eg Siberia, Khimki, Voronezh and Rostov on Don.   So today, capital investment in facilities has improved significantly, and Rodionenko would have been figural, and highly influential, in determining how that money was spent.

It remains to be seen though whether this investment alone can effect the changes necessary to transform Russian artistic gymnastics and achieve sustainable results in both MAG and WAG.  The problems go much deeper than equipment; Rodionenko lists some rather bleak participation statistics in this interview, for example.  He also makes it clear why it is difficult to attract coaches to come back home.

Furthermore, despite announcements of a brand new $1.8bn funding programme for Russian sports, made last October by Vladimir Putin (Butler, 2014) we are now hearing that Russia's economic difficulties are likely to lead to cutbacks in athletes' preparations for the Rio Olympics, with only the very best likely to be given the opportunity for warm weather training (AP, 2015).  Rodionenko had already (2013) asked the Ministry of Sport for access to such facilities in Sochi; we will have to wait and see if they are allocated.  

The following interview (don't forget, given in 2005) doesn't give a good impression.  It betrays Rodionenko's lack of confidence and evasiveness as he reacts rather defensively to many of Vaitsekhovskaya's questions, avoiding committing to any results, pointing out the difficulties and drawbacks, and laying the blame firmly at the feet of those who preceded him.  It is interesting that many of the problems he cites here remain the same ones he speaks of today.

Given the importance of the regions to Russia's success in gymnastics, and Rodionenko's decision to break up the central training system that had been so successful previously, it does make you wonder if it was the right thing to have spent quite so much money on Round Lake ...

Nikolai Kuksenkov in training with coach Igor Kalabushkin (courtesy Progorod)

Especially when today, for example, leading team member Nikolai Kuksenkov is complaining of the poor standard of facilities at his home gym in Vladimir (Progorod, 2015).  The Burtasy School of Gymnastics in Penza, home to five national team members including the two most decorated gymnasts in Russia, Ablyazin and Mustafina, recently benefitted from a new set of equipment from the Ministry of Sport, as a reward for Ablyazin's medals, but hasn't seen any sponsorship money; the local government foots many of the bills there, and the School also raises money by hiring out its halls for corporate conferences and meetings.  

I suppose a big part of the problem is that Russia is so vast, the clubs so numerous; the fundamental approach to sport and beliefs about sport are different to the US, and the business environment still doesn't particularly encourage independent enterprise.  Despite Rodionenko's self-trumpeted familiarity with Western business practices, and the admiration he holds for Liukin's successful entrepreneurial skills, he still hasn't come up with a strategy to boost participation and standards in the regions long-term, and enhance the financial sustainability of local gyms. So, if appearances are anything to go by, this is a major failure of the last nine years of Rodionenko's leadership.  And now, as the fertile years of plenty approach an end, as Russia slips depressingly into recession, as Rodionenko approaches the end of his rather long contract, it is probably too late to change much more.  

For all of Rodionenko's focus on the circumstances, the best results of the last ten years seem to have come by focussing on the gymnastics and the training. The points he raises are important, but an enormous gap in this interview is any indication of the day to day actions and strategies coaches will be required to undertake to improve their gymnasts' programmes, performance and preparation for competition.  It is interesting that the men's programme is now beginning to show results after almost ten years under the leadership of Alfosov.  Most of Rodionenko's examples in this piece focus on WAG, which is more problematic because of the more rapid turnover of gymnasts (age/physical and emotional maturity issues) but where also, of course, the team is on its fourth head coach in ten years.  The WAG team arguably lost an Olympic gold medal as a team in 2012, because of the terrible feuding between coaches that Rodionenko had been trying to avoid.  And while Rodionenko is keen to point out that it takes time to lift a team into medal-winning standards, it is worth pointing out that it only took Alexandrov just over a year to train the WAG team to gold medals in the team and AA at World Championships (2010), that much of the potential for the 2016 Olympic medals rests in gymnasts whose skills and determination were tempered during the Alexandrov era, and that those results were achieved by the relatively simple measures of hard work and discipline.  There are talented newcomers on the team today, but each year their promise remains unfulfilled.  It remains to be seen whether the world class training facilities in Lake Krugloye will ensure they reach their potential by Rio.  

Read on - Vaitsekhovskaya's 2005 interview with newly appointed head coach Andrei Rodionenko.  I have inserted initials to clarify who is speaking.  Some of the content is paraphrased, and there are some omissions, for clarity.

'We can't build a reputation at the Olympic Games' - Andrei Rodionenko

Original Russian language source of the following interview - at the website of Elena Vaitsekhovskaya - http://www.velena.ru/gymnastics/AR_2005.html

In 1989, the head coach of the women's team of the USSR, Andrei Rodionenko, became unemployed. At his own request, he resigned from the team that had just won eight gold medals at the Olympic Games in Seoul. Two years later he left Russia for Australia. Eight years later, he was in Canada. And this winter he returned to Russia to lead a team that hasn't won the Olympic team championships in almost a decade.

He returned, in fact, out of the ashes. There is no sign of optimism in Rodionenko's voice as he explains -

AR - We are just beginning to remodel the female hall of residence,  Will you have much time at Round Lake?   You will stay until evening? That's great. We'll have lunch and then a quiet talk. 

Yuri Evlampivich [Titov, acting President of the RGF, Honorary President of the FIG, an Olympic Champion in Melbourne, 1956) is just leaving.  I am just about to find out about why Rodionenko didn't turn down the opportunity to return to Russia.  In the meantime, I watch as Rodionenko says goodbye to Titov, at the door of the hall that has urgently needed an immediate overhaul for the last ten years. All I can think of are the ashes - neither of these two are in the reconstruction and overhaul business.

We go up to the third floor by some old marble steps, down a corridor, and finally enter a shabby (once 'luxury') room where I flop into a chair dating back to the heyday of Soviet sport.  I unceremoniously ask the first question that comes into my head - 

EV - You are so patriotic that you accepted an offer to return to Russia?

AR - I received my first invitation to join the team from Titov, in 1971.  It was a difficult time.  Men's gymnastics was dominated by the Japanese and we needed to prove that the Soviet Union could also come first.  I was 29 years old, and I agreed without hesitation.  Initially I was responsible for the men's team, then - up to the Games in Seoul - the women. 

AR continues - I still think that Titov was the one who supported me.  And in 1989, the team began to remove all those who had an opinion. Titov was the first to go, then I went after him - I did not see any point in staying.  Future prospects here were difficult.

EV - But now, why should you have to start all over again - more than thirty years later? You have a stable  life, a good contract in a prosperous country - isn't it time to quit? Could you really not refuse?

AR - Well, Titov didn't.  I know he didn't have any selfish motives; there is much less capacity to act now than there was back in 71.   Sometimes Titov can be loud and indignant: 'Are you sure?  Do you know how much this will cost?'  Such conversations take place every day ... Medicine, building, salaries.  If we talk about the whole situation I can tell you honestly, things are worse than I thought.  But not without hope.

AUSTRALIA

EV - Why, having decided to leave Russia in 1991, did you chose Australia?

AR - I had had offers to leave to work abroad before. Our system interested many.  Remember, all of the 'socialist' countries had dominated in gymnastics.  Soviet athletes regularly came from first to sixth place in the individual world championships. We could afford to keep in reserve the absolute world champion. We were able to leave two World Champions on the bench - Yuri Korolev, and Oksana Omelyanchik. In Seoul, I remember, I was approached by Gienger (Eberhard Gienger - a well known German gymnast, former world champion on the horizontal bar) - "Andrei, did you make a mistake? You listed Omelyanchik as number seven ... ".  It wasn't an insult. Everyone understood that at the time this arrangement was fair.

AR - We had visited Australia frequently for display performances. Then I had already seen that this is a country where people are interested in gymnastics.  They want to get to the Olympics, but can't get a result, and have no idea how to work. They called me, and we agreed - I went to Perth. 

EV - How long did it take to get used to the local mentality?

AR - About six months. By that time, some Australian clubs had employed Chinese experts, so basically we did the same thing as them, but a little differently.  Each Australian state has a so-called Institute of Sport. This is not an educational institution, but a training center. Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide ...

EV - You travelled to each centre?

AR - The Australians were beginning to understand, and I was given carte blanche to any action. As a result, the team was not only selected for the 1992 Games, but of the six people who went to Barcelona, ​​three were from Perth.

EV - How many years in total did you spend in Australia?

AR - Two Olympic cycles.

EV - And why did you leave?

AR - After 1996 there were significant changes to the government, many state structures.  Around that  time I had two offers of work, one from Europe, another from Canada. As our granddaughter was living in the USA, this proved decisive.  My wife said, "Andrei, what could be a doubt?".  And we went to Ottawa.

CANADA

EV - What did the Canadians want?

AR - The same as the Australians: to get to the Olympics. In the world rankings, they then occupied 18th place. If you think that sport is only hard at the top, think again.  In my opinion it is much harder to be in the second group of ten.  There are usually far more countries fighting for places 16-20 than there are at the top.

EV - In Canada, you, too, were given carte blanche?

AR - That was my main condition for signing the contract. My side of the contract was to guarantee results. In 1999, Canada qualified for the 2000 Games.

EV - Does this mean that the training system that existed in the Soviet Union was perfect?

AR - Almost.

EV - So how did you work so quickly?

AR -  It wasn't fast. It took 20 years. Textbooks, manuals, workbooks with "classified" information.  "For Official Use Only".

AR - It was difficult in Canada, because there were so few coaches.   Elvira Saadi (Olympic champion in 1972 and 1976, now working in Ottawa) had 16 athletes in the gym with her.  Out of these, at best, there would be only one who might 'make it'.  

AR - But because mom and dad are sitting on the balcony watching - and God forbid that they notice that their child is given less time - the coach's attention had to be distributed equally amongst all sixteen.  You can't even say out loud that one child or another is or isn't talented.  The club relies on the income that the parents provide; their fees pay the coaches' salaries.  On average, a gymnastics coach will be in the hall for 9-10 hours and of that only 3-4 will be on achieving results.  The rest of the time is about making money.  This is the case in all the clubs, without exception.

EV - Judging from the stories of our coaches working in the US, there are also a lot of difficulties. It was the same story with Alexander Alexandrov who prepared a whole group of strong gymnasts in Houston, led by the US champion Dominique Moceanu, who then was taken over by Bela Karolyi  before the Games in Atlanta.

AR - This is completely normal - it is only when people do not know about it that they are outraged. Karolyi was the owner of the club and from his perspective it was all perfectly legal. It was work for hire. As the owner he may at any time replace any employee.  Legally, it was all OK - it's just business.

AR - If you want to work for yourself - that's another story. How did Valery Liukin and Evgeny Marchenko do it?  They worked for a few years is to create a sound financial base on which to build their own school.  Only then did they start to work on results. To do both at the same time is impossible.

RUSSIA

EV - Have you made many changes to the coaching staff of the team?

AR - Yes.  Evgeny Nikolko and Valery Alfosov will be responsible for the male programme, both adults and youth. Victor Gavrichenko will look after the women.  [Rodionenko says something like - It is important that there are clear lines of responsibility to avoid people feuding - he strongly implies that coaches had not been working together productively during the final years of the Arkayev era, because no one had a clear job remit.] Every gymnast who comes to training camp will be invited with his personal coach. But we will not run a permanent training camp, as it was before.  This was a very flawed system.

EV - But it gave results.

AR - Yes - but what was the price of this result? Do you think that someone working at camp 300 days a year can continue to work productively? People need to relax, to recover, and return to camp with fresh brains.

EV - Why then are you putting Round Lake through such major reconstruction?

AR - In order to make people feel that they aren't coming to a prison; so that after leaving, they feel tempted to come back.

AR - There have to be regulations about selection, protecting the rights of gymnasts and coaches.  In Russia there are no such rules.  

EV - What, in your opinion, are the prospects of Russian gymnasts for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing?

- Rodionenko says that work has to begin on the next Olympic cycle well in advance.  Had the work begun in 2003 (it was 2005 at the time of this interview) the results would be altogether different, not least from the point of view of people's mentality.  He had worked out that there were 700 days left before the 2007 World Championships, the qualifying event for the Olympics - which leaves 500 days once you have deducted holidays, competitions and travel.  He goes on to explain that only those born 1992 or earlier were eligible for the Games, and to list the numbers of elite gymnasts eligible for selection for the Beijing Games : 

1991/2 - almost none
1987 - 1 girl
1988 - 1
1989 - 2 or 3
1990 - 4

He says they will need six gymnasts for the Olympics, and goes on to talk about the team's rivals.

AR - In the States there are 60,000 gymnasts officially registered, and each of them pays fees, plus a membership to the USGF of $45 annually, which works out at cumulatively $2.5 million income for the national Federation.

Another example was China, where, says Rodionenko, training goes on continuously from 8am to 8 pm.  

Nevertheless, Rodionenko believed that for the big competitions - Worlds and Olympics - they would be able to field full teams, though the situation was more difficult for the women than the men.  They wouldn't compete at the Universiade because they didn't have enough gymnasts to do well.  

EV - So, you have reason to believe that at the European Championship, Hungary in early June, Russia will compete with dignity?

- Rodionenko says that it wasn't just a question of 'breaking in' new gymnasts, but also showing something new that could command respect.  They had someone working on a triple somersault on floor, and were practicing some novelties on rings.  The team had to show new gym, a new approach, new class, if they wanted to be noticed.

EV - Does that mean that Russia isn't being noticed, based on what you say?

AR - Yes, exactly. In recent years, I have seen Russian gymnasts at various competitions, and was really hoping to see something interesting. But I saw nothing. 

AR - The trouble is that Russian coaches have become accustomed to be on the sidelines. It is the first sign that they are not willing to fight for leading roles in principle. And it is necessary to begin to do so, at least in Europe.

AR - We can't build a reputation for our country by starting at the Olympic Games - we have to begin at the smaller tournaments with a much lower level. If our country is interesting in appearance, behaviour, relationships within the team, according to what we show in the hall, it won't be possible to ignore us
.
EV - As far as I know, an injured athlete from a Western country will rarely compete. In Russia, however, the opposite idea has prevailed for many years.  What is the policy now?

- Rodionenko explains how four out of seven gymnasts competing for the USA in the Anaheim World Championships had been injured - the situation had been investigated.  All elite athletes can suffer injuries; but in the States they had quickly worked to identify the reasons, and made changes to their training for the Athens Olympics.    

As for Russia, AR says that he had read the team doctor's report of the last Olympics with some horror - the system was all wrong, and it was no coincidence that the MAG doctor had been changed.  Gymnasts can only be heroic once - remember Kerri Strug's broken leg in 1996?  She only did that once. 

EV - Amongst those working in the West, are there any coaches that you'd like to see in Russia?

AR - There are. But the fact is that I cannot invite them. Because I do not have the opportunity to provide the same reward as they receive overseas. We must be honest. Elvira Saadi, Elena Davydova are both very good coaches, but their lives are settled, their children are growing up, studying at University.  I had a conversation with Sasha Alexandrov, and told him it was unrealistic for me to offer him the lifestyle he and his family had become used to.   

EV - What is your reward?

AR - I am taking the minimum - certainly not the maximum.

EV - If you could have all the coaches you wanted, which ones would you choose?

AR - Only those who wanted to come.

References

Alexandrov, A, Alexandrova, I, Booth, E (2013) 'Alexander Alexandrov in his own words 3 : Rodionenko and the a Russian team, 1980s to the present day' Rewriting Russian Gymnastics available at http://rewritingrussiangymnastics.blogspot.co.uk/2013/08/alexander-alexandrov-in-his-own-words-3.html accessed 30th January 2015

Associated Press (AP) 2015 'Economic woes force Russia's Okympic hopefuls to stay at home' Yahoo news, available at http://sports.yahoo.com/news/economic-woes-force-russias-olympic-hopefuls-stay-home-092303104--spt.html accessed 30th January 2015

Butler, N (2014) 'New multi-billion ruble Russian sports funding programme unveiled by Vladimir Putin' Inside the Games available at http://www.insidethegames.biz/news/1023169-new-multi-billion-ruble-russian-sports-funding-programme-unveiled-by-vladimir-Putin accessed 28th December 2014

Jokisipila, M (2011) 'World Champions led by national champions: the role of state-owned corporate giants in Russian sports' Russian Analytical Digest Vol 95 pp 8-11 available at http://www.css.ethz.ch/publications/pdfs/RAD-95-8-11.pdf accessed 28th January 2015

Progorod (2015) 'Gymnast Kuksenkov is preparing for the Rio Olympic Games' available at http://m.progorod33.ru/sport/view/67614 accessed 30th January 2015

Russian Mafia (online) 'Viacheslav Fetisov' available at http://www.rumafia.com/person.php?id=1859 accessed 30th January 2015

View VTB's virtual tour of Round Lake National Training Centre (Ozero Krugloye) -http://vtbrussia.ru/sport/gymnastic/virtual/

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