How Russia's Plot For Mercenary Curlers Failed
The Russian men's curling team lost in its Olympic debut against Britain on Monday, and expectations for its first foray in the Winter Games here are running low. A report published by a Russian state-run news agency noted that while the women's national curling team is 'beautiful' and 'famous,' the men's team is 'a completely different thing.'
The Russian men have little history with the sport, having qualified for the Olympics only because they are the host country. And as the report added, 'The first pancake is always lumpy.' But Russia's lowly status in men's curling is also the byproduct of a failed experiment in 2010: hiring Canadians.
Under pressure to boost their medal hopes for 2014, Russian officials devised a plan during the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver to hire three Canadian curlers with no ties to the country, turn them into Russians and trot them out in Sochi. How the Canadian experiment came together and subsequently fell apart is indicative of the delicate balance Russia faced in trying to win as many medals as possible without offending national pride.
The practice of importing Olympic talent isn't unique to curling or to Russia. Victor An, a short-track speedskater who won three gold medals for his home country of South Korea in 2006, became a Russian citizen in 2011 and is now a gold-medal favorite. But the strategy was more problematic for Russian curling officials, who pulled the plug on the Canadian experiment less than a year after it began.
'A lot of the backlash they heard from inside their own government and country was, 'Why can't we do this with Russians? Why do we have to bring in Canadians to do this?'' said Justin Richter, one of the Canadians who became part of Team Russia in 2010. 'But they don't want to be embarrassed in their home country, either. I don't think this team will be an embarrassment, but they're going to be in for a tough go.'
That view was echoed in interviews with several curling insiders, who agreed that while the imported Canadians were hardly as formidable as Team Canada, they would have at least given Russia a decent chance at a medal.
Instead, when asked about Russia's chances in the 10-team tournament Monday, current Russia coach Roger Schmidt, a Canadian, said: 'Realistically, we're the 10th-best team here.'
Which is why the Canadian experiment was launched in the first place.
During the last Winter Games, Dimitry Svischev, head of the Russian Curling Federation, approached a Canadian coach named Patti Wuthrich about the possibility of coaching the Russian men. First, Wuthrich said the plan was to hire her and one Canadian curler. But before long, Svischev was asking for three Canadians to pair with two Russians.
'They wanted to have podium finishes,' Wuthrich said, 'and he felt that the only way that was going to happen was if he imported some players.'
Svischev, who didn't respond to a request for comment through a spokesperson, had only three criteria, according to Wuthrich. He wanted the curlers to be young, single and among the top 10 in Canada, where an estimated 1.3 million of the world's 1.5 million curlers reside.
After a few others turned down the offer, Wuthrich recruited Richter, Jason Gunnlaugson and Tyler Forrest, who were on the team that finished eighth in the 2009 Canadian Olympic trials. The three of them signed contracts under which they would become Russian citizens and be paid annual salaries of just under $100,000 to curl full-time for Russia.
'It was a weird sort of dream job,' Gunnlaugson said.
But when they arrived in Moscow to begin training with their two Russian teammates and compete against other Russians in an event, they were met with hostility. 'We knew enough of the other curlers that we could say hi to,' Richter said. 'They weren't talking to us anymore. You could tell there was animosity.'
In November 2010, Richter, Gunnlaugson, Forrest and their Russian teammates won the Russian national championships. They received full Team Russia uniforms and clothing, which they would have worn at the European championships the following month and eventually, in Sochi. The experiment, it seemed, was a success.
But not long after that, Wuthrich received a call from Svischev's assistant. All along, the curlers were unwilling to renounce their Canadian citizenship.
Though Russia doesn't officially recognize dual citizenship, Wuthrich said Svischev had assured them that obtaining Russian citizenship wouldn't be a problem. Now, she was being told they wouldn't receive citizenship. The experiment was over.
'That was the reason they told us, but honestly, I think what happened is there was a lot of animosity building up,' Wuthrich said. 'If they wanted to get them citizenship, they would have gotten it.'
On Monday, while Russia opened with 7-4 loss, the three Canadians were back at their day jobs. Gunnlaugson works for a graphics company in Vernon, British Columbia, Richter manages a bank in Winnipeg and Forrest works for an automation company in Winnipeg.
Richter still has souvenirs from his Team Russia stint -- the jacket, the contract he signed and so on. But when he turns on the television to watch the Games, he said, 'I won't be pulling out much of that. No, I'm going to be rooting for the red and white of Canada.'
在上一届冬奥会期间，俄罗斯冰壶联合会(Russian Curling Federation)会长Dimitry Svischev找到了加拿大教练帕蒂•乌斯里奇(Patti Wuthrich)，问她能否出任俄罗斯男子冰壶队教练。乌斯里奇称，最初的计划是聘请她和一名加拿大冰壶运动员。但不久后，Svischev改变了主意，找到了三名加拿大运动员与两名俄罗斯运动员搭档。
在另外几人拒绝了邀请之后，乌斯里奇招募了里希特、杰森·贡劳格森(Jason Gunnlaugson)和泰勒·福雷斯特(Tyler Forrest)，2009年加拿大奥运会选拔赛中，他们所在的队伍排名第八。他们三人签定了合约，其中规定他们将成为俄罗斯公民，年薪接近10万美元，全职为俄罗斯参加冰壶赛事。