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Athletics: Youth key to Russian success - Balakhnichev

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Russia will be among the favourites to top the medal table at its home World Championships in August largely because of a strong youth system that, unlike in other sports, it managed to preserve after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Questions were raised about the effectiveness of the country's sports policies after Russia finished an underwhelming fourth in the medal table at the 2012 Olympics.

But the performance of the country's athletics squad, which won eight gold medals in London, was recognised as an unquestionable success.

Russia's athletics federation chief Valentin Balakhnichev told AFP in an interview that they managed to maintain the tradition of raising young talents which existed in the sport during the Soviet era.

He added that the Russian government's generous financial backing has allowed the athletics federation to maintain and develop further the youth system.

"Currently we have around 300,000 youngsters, who are going in for track and field athletics on a regular basis -- at least five times a week," he said.

"They're training in 350 specialised youth sports schools across the country under the watchful gaze of around 8,000 coaches, who work with young athletics talents only."

Balakhnichev added that the existing system of indoor and outdoor athletics tournaments for athletes of different ages, starting from 10-year-old children, helped stimulate the growth of young talents.

The system allows the federation to have around 250 athletes of different ages representing Russia in international competitions.

The government's financial incentives for the athletes and their coaches allow them to concentrate fully on competition and guarantee the entire system's financial stability.

"Without the government's backing we could never hold and further develop the system of helping the young talents in our sport," Balakhnichev said.

The country's athletics chief highlighted the recent successful performances of Russian high jumpers and walkers, who won 2012 Olympic gold medals in both men's and women's competitions, as an example of the system's successful work.

"The top-class high-jump coaching staff was the key to our success in these disciplines," Balakhnichev said.

"We have two serious schools, led by Evgeny Zagorulko and his former pupil and follower Sergei Klyugin, which are competing really hard between each other. This inner competition boosts the results in these disciplines."

The success of Russia's athletes at London means that young hopefuls have a range of gold-medal winning role models like victorious high jumpers Anna Chicherova and Ivan Ukhov along with walkers Sergei Kirdyapkin and Yelena Lashmanova.

But he stressed that Russia's success was not uniform across all disciplines and admitted the country is longer featuring in events where the USSR had once been dominant, such as the sprint and pole vault.

"On the other hand, Russia has lost its domination in some disciplines which enjoyed success in the Soviet era. We've lost several coaching schools which were bringing up top-class athletes in Soviet times and now we are paying the price for these losses.

"Our main goal is to preserve the coaching network and the infrastructure here in Russia to ensure continuity of winning tradition in our sport into future generations."

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130417/athletics-youth-key-russian-success-balakhnichev