TIME russia

Road to Redemption

For Russia, the Games are a chance to exorcize the ghosts of Vancouver

Four years ago, when the last winter Olympics came to an end, Russia’s state news agency RIA Novosti captured the nation’s feelings about Team Russia’s medal haul with a headline: NIGHTMARE IN VANCOUVER. Never in its history had the Russian team (or, for that matter, the Soviet one) performed as atrociously at the Winter Games. Viacheslav Fetisov, the Russian hockey legend who served as the Kremlin’s top sports official leading up to those Games, remembers Vancouver as a “total collapse” — and a hard lesson. “We learned a lot,” he says. “And now we have a chance at redemption in Sochi.”

As one of the greatest defensemen in hockey history, Fetisov captained Russia’s bid in 2007 to host this year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi. Since then, he has also been one of the few senior Olympic officials to dare set a target for the Sochi medal count. “Fourteen golds,” he tells Time. “I believe that’s realistic.” With the home-field advantage, maybe. But it would also be the best Winter Olympics showing in Russian or Soviet history. Redemption? More like a miracle on ice.

For his part, Vladimir Putin, the President of a superstitious nation, has avoided jinxing the national team with any predictions, especially after the humiliation in Vancouver sent Russia’s athletes home with a measly three golds, none of which were in the sports that Russia tends to dominate — figure skating and hockey. (The team also won five silver and seven bronze medals.) For months afterward, Putin couldn’t get away from the topic. “Wherever I go, the first question is about Vancouver, ‘What happened in Vancouver, what was the problem?'” he complained to a meeting of sports officials that spring. “People have even stopped asking about their wages, about the economy.”

The Vancouver disaster remains the subject of an ongoing blame game. Some officials claim that training budgets had been pilfered. Others point to the unseasonably warm weather. Still others, including Fetisov, say the athletes suffered from jet lag because they arrived in Vancouver too close to the Games. As host nation, Russia clearly can’t blame jet lag this year. So all eyes are now on the lineup of Russian athletes hoping to make good in Sochi.

The crowd favorite will be Evgeni Plushenko, the three-time world figure-skating champion who won gold at the Torino Games in 2006. He will compete only a year after undergoing major surgery on his spine, and at the age of 31, these will probably be his last Olympics. The other Team Russia darling is Evgeny Ustyugov, who became a national hero for bringing home a precious gold from Vancouver in the biathlon, the sport that combines cross-country skiing and shooting. Russia’s hockey team also looks strong, with several stars playing in the National Hockey League, including Washington Capitals winger Alexander Ovechkin, one of the world’s best.

But home-field advantage may not do the Russian stars much good. Because of construction delays, Olympic venues in Sochi only opened for training at the end of January, leaving the locals only a week to gain an edge over their foreign rivals. And the moral support expected from cheering home crowds may not be as strong as it could be; three weeks before the opening ceremony, Russia’s Olympic Organizing Committee announced that 30% of its tickets remain unsold, about 10 times more than at the end of the Games in Vancouver and the Summer Olympics in London in 2012. “Don’t worry,” says Fetisov. “Our fans know how to cheer. The ones who show up in Sochi, their energy, that’s what will get us the gold.” And if Team Russia does get enough of it, Putin may never have to answer questions about Vancouver again.

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