The Soviet Sports Machine- Faded Glory
The bygone Soviet era of the 1950’s & 60’s produced the most successful Olympian in modern history, that is until Michael Phelps touched the swimming pool wall at the 2012 London games to win his 19th medal.
For 48 years, gymnast Larisa Semyonovna Latynina led the world as the most decorated athlete of the quadrennial events, racking up a total of 18 gold, silver and bronze accolades in her illustrious career.
In the course of three Olympiads- 1956, 1960, 1964- she emerged as either the highest or second highest medalist of the tournaments.
Born in 1934 in the Ukraine, Latynina was trained, disciplined and shaped by the USSR’s indomitable sports machine that also manufactured Lev Yashin, the greatest soccer goalkeeper of the 20th Century, if not of all time.
From 1994-2010, the World Cup recognition for best goalie was even bestowed as the “Yashin Award” before being rebranded the “Golden Glove”.
Until Ronald Reagan’s “Evil Empire” started fragmenting in the early 1990’s, the communist motherland topped the medals count at each Olympics either in aggregate as a nation, or through an individual.
But with satellite republics going their own way, the former USSR was also stripped of some of its best contenders.
Gymnast Vitaly Scherbo, the winningest Olympian at the 1992 Barcelona games, typified the Soviet athlete caught in a changing political landscape. He first represented the USSR, then the Unified Team, then Belarus.
Alexei Nemov, elite medalist in both the 1996 and 2000 Olympics, is regarded as the last of the Soviets and the first of the Russians- stern old school discipline giving way to personality and individualism.
The new millennium was not sympathetic to Russia’s former athletic achievements. Starting 2004 in Athens and through 2016 in Rio, Russia took second, third or fourth place in country medals. Individual athletes barely even made the charts at the summer Olympics.
However, this period coincided with the arrival of Vladimir Putin as Moscow's strongman, a former KGB and nostalgic cold warrior who also happens to be an avid sportsman.
His personal involvement in managing the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi was not just a goodwill exhibition to showcase Russia to the world, but an opportunistic moment to restore the country’s faded glory, at any cost.
It shouldn’t be a surprise then that Russia’s leading performance in Sochi was fueled by the biggest known doping scandal in sports history.
BASKETBALL February 20, 2010 Kirk Hinrich of the Chicago Bulls breaks a franchise record, scoring his 771st three-point field goal and clearing the 770 mark set by Ben Gordon. Coming out of the University of Kansas, Hinrich put in stints with the Bulls, Wizards and Hawks during his NBA career from 2003-2016. He was a member of Team USA when they won bronze at the 2006 FIBA World Championship in Japan.
HOCKEY February 15, 2000 NJ Devils’ Martin Brodeur becomes the first ever NHL goalie to receive credit for a game-winning goal. Facing the Flyers, he was the last Devil to touch the puck before it went into the opponent’s net when one of the Flyers’ own players accidentally scored his own goal. Considered one of the best goalies of all time, Brodeur won 3 Stanley Cups and 2 Olympic gold medals representing Canada.
MOTOR RACING February 18, 1990 Derrike Cope wins the 32nd edition of the Daytona 500 stock car race. Driving a Chevrolet for the Whitcomb Racing team and winning his first NASCAR chase, Cope beat out runner-up Terry Labonte and third place finisher Bill Elliott. Dale Earnhardt led the pack for 155 laps, or ¾ of the race and came short towards the end when his car ran over a piece of metal on the track, shredding his right rear tire.
OLYMPICS February 15, 1980 American Eric Heiden wins the 500 meter speed skating race at the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York. The Wisconsin native wrapped up the tournament with a total of 5 gold medals, including the 500, 1000, 1500, 5000, and 10000 meter chases. Heiden broke 4 Olympic records and 1 world record in the competitions and is considered the best overall athlete- sprint and long- in the sport’s history.