Olympics: big ambitions for Russian stars in Sochi

With the hopes of the nation and its leaders resting on them, Russia's winter sports athletes are hoping to put on a display of Soviet-style domination at their home Olympic Games in Sochi next year.

Gone are the days when the Red Machine could be counted on to conquer all comers, competition is tighter than ever and Russia's own sports system still rebuilding after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

But when competition begins in one year, Russia will be hoping not just to avoid a repeat of the calamity of the Vancouver 2010 Games where it won a humiliatingly meagre tally of just three golds but to remind the world it is still a sporting superpower.

Russia's leaders have set their sights high, with Alexander Zhukov, the head of the Russian Olympic Committee wanting Russia to emerge as the event's strongest nation.

"For the overall team victory in Sochi, I reckon it will be necessary to win 15 golds and for this we are going to need 60-70 potential medallists in our team. We have such guys," he said.

He said in key sports such as figure skating and biathlon Russia has shown significant improvements this season from last when it only had 40 potential medallists with a "medalisation chance" of only 25 percent.

-- 'Miracles do not exist' --

Sergei Butov, editor at the Sports Express daily, expressed doubt that Russia would be able to transform the Vancouver debacle -- its worst ever Winter Games result -- into overall victory in Sochi.

"Such miracles do not exist in sport. You are not going to be able to go from 11th to first place in the space of just four years," he told AFP.

"First place is a fantasy. If we make the first three it will be a breakthrough and springboard for the further development of sport," he said.

Sporting success is of huge importance for the authorities led by President Vladimir Putin who want to consolidate national pride and encourage sports activity among a declining population with one of the developed world's worst mortality rates.

Financial shortages are no longer an issue and Russia now spares no expense importing the best foreign coaches for its athletes like Germany's Wolfgang Pichler in biathlon or Switzerland's Thomas Lips for the women's curling team.

And coaches are not the only imports with Moscow fast-tracking citizenship for several top athletes to compete in Sochi.

South Korean triple Olympic champion Ahn Hyun-soo in short track speed skating was given Russian citizenship in 2011 after falling out with his local sporting authorities and will compete for Russia under the name of Viktor Ahn.

Hosting the Games will be a considerable advantage for Russia, Zhukov said.

Its ice sports athletes are to spend a year practising on the new Sochi track, its cross country skiers can adapt to a new course 1,500 metres above sea level and its technicians know exactly what wax to use for the local snow.

The Soviet Union led the medals table with 11 golds at the 1988 Games in Calgary, an achievement matched by post-Soviet Russia in 1994 at Lillehammer.

Russia has never come close since to such success, despite the expansion of the Games with more events, a failure that some would argue is due to tighter doping controls.

-- Five potential heroes --

As the one-year countdown to Sochi 2014 begins, several potential stars are emerging who have the chance to become national heroes should they strike gold.

-- ALEXANDER LEGKOV, CROSS COUNTRY SKIING: Legkov astonished observers and rivals including the great Petter Northug of Norway by winning the Tour de Ski this January, Russia's most striking success in Nordic sports in years.

-- ALEXANDER ZUBKOV, BOBSLEIGH: The veteran driver will be a strong contender for gold in both the two and four man competitions on home ice.

-- YEVGENY PLUSHENKO, FIGURE SKATING: The 2006 gold medallist, controversially relegated to second in 2010, has undergone back surgery but on his day could be unbeatable with home support and a quadruple jump.

-- MEN'S ICE HOCKEY SQUAD: With NHL stars such as Yevgeny Malkin and Alexander Ovechkin, great things will be expected of the team who won the world championships in 2011

-- ALENA ZAVARZINA, SNOWBOARD: After winning the world championships in parallel slalom in 2011, Zavarzina is a real contender in a sport that was almost unknown in Russia until a few years ago. Her husband, fellow snowboarder Vic Wild, changed his US nationality to compete for Russia.