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Olympics: Russia's 2014 winter dreams hit reality check

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Any dreams Russia had of dominating its home Winter Olympic Games in Sochi next year have been dealt a harsh reality check by the mediocre performances of the country's athletes this season.

With most of the main winter competitions now finished for the year, Russia risks only coming fifth in the Olympics medals table if its performances at this year's world championships are repeated at Sochi 2014.

The failure to win any world championship gold in biathlon -- a hugely popular televised sport in Russia -- has caused particular concern.

Russia captured only one gold at the world figure skating championships, in the pairs discipline -- the latest sign that the era of its total dominance of the sport has ended.

According to a tally by leading sports daily Sovetsky Sport, Norway are undisputed leaders of this winter season with 17 world championship golds, while the United States are second with 11.

Germany collected nine and Russia and Canada seven apiece, with the world championships in ice hockey and men's curling still to come.

-- 'Third would be outstanding' --

Russian athletes' results this winter have forced the country's sports minister Vitaly Mutko to take a much more cautious view of the prospects for Sochi.

Mutko had declared on March 12 that the "only estimated and expected result" for the Russian team at the 2014 Olympics was top place in the medals table.

But just two weeks later, on March 23, Mutko implied that Russia could at best hope for third overall.

"The potential level of our team is fourth or fifth place. Third place would be an outstanding result for us. This is an objective estimate," he said.

Russia won just three gold medals at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver and a repeat of that in Sochi would be a disaster for President Vladimir Putin, as he seeks to flaunt the country's power.

It has not all been bad news for Russia in the 2012-2013 season, though, with some encouraging performances despite ferocious competition.

Cross-country skier Alexander Legkov won the prestigious multiple-stage Tour de Ski race and finished runner-up in the overall World Cup standings, while Russia's ski sprinters won two gold medals at the world championships.

The speed skaters were also successful as Denis Yuskov and Olga Fatkulina both won world championship 1,500m gold. These were Russia's first world championship gold medals since 1996.

Veteran Alexander Zubkov -- coached by Canadian legend Pierre Lueders -- is still Russia's main Olympic medal hope in bobsleigh as his four-man crew won four World Cup stages this season.

In skeleton, Russia won its first ever world championship gold medals through Alexander Tretiakov.

In figure skating, Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov have finally overcame the German skating duo Alena Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy's perennial domination in the discipline by winning world championship gold.

Russia also have chances to win the medal in snowboarding as Yekaterina Tudegesheva confirmed her class by winning gold at this year's world championships. Former American Vic Wild, now a naturalised Russian citizen, also won bronze.

The Russian short track team enjoyed their best season as another naturalised Russian Viktor Ahn, three-time Olympic champion for South Korea, won a set of World Cup stages.

-- 'I would resign' --

Performing in its traditionally strong sports is vital for Russia in Sochi given it has almost no hope of success in alpine disciplines or ski jumping.

The biathlon squads, who won seven races and 28 medals overall at the World Cup stages this season, also experienced major failure at the world championships with one silver and one bronze medal courtesy of Anton Shipulin, the lone Russian biathlete to show any semblance of form.

The team's failure at the world championships triggered questions of the coaching staff with state television's main sports commentator blasting national coach Wolfgang Pichler, a German, on live television.

"The result that will suit me in Sochi is two golds. If this does not happen, then I will resign," said Mikhail Prokhorov, the billionaire businessman who heads the Russian biathlon union, quoted by Sovetsky Sport.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130328/olympics-russias-2014-winter-dreams-hit-reality-check