On March 11th, Olga Zaitseva’s future in biathlon appeared, to all outsiders, to be bright. After competing in four events at World Championships, only the mass start and relay remained, both events in which Zaitseva had won gold in the past. She had also been elected to the International Biathlon Union’s Athlete’s Committee by her peers. With only two men and two women on the committee, it was an honor.
As the weekend progressed, things seemed to be going according to plan: the next day, a Saturday, she placed sixth in the mass start. It wasn’t the best finish for the Russian, who has won two Olympic relays, owns eight World Championships medals, and received the Order of Friendship from President Dimitri Medvedev last year, but it wasn’t a disaster.
By Sunday, however, things were falling apart. After two terrible relay legs by the Russian women, in which both Ekaterina Yurlova and Anna Bogliy-Titovets hit the penalty loop three times, and the team was in 19th place. (In relays, athletes are allowed to hand-load three extra rounds in each shooting stage to hit the targets, so penalty loops are unusual; Bogaliy-Titovets was later seen in tears.)
That’s when the changes began, for both Zaitseva and the entire Russian biathlon world.
While Svetlana Sleptsova dragged the team up to 14th place during the relay’s third leg, Mikhail Prokhorov, the billionaire head of the Russian Biathlon Union (RBU) who also owns the New Jersey Nets, fired team coach Anatoly Khovantsev, who had been working with the women for less than a year.
After racing the third-fastest anchor leg and pulling the team into ninth place, Zaitseva abruptly announced that she was retiring. The claim rippled through the Russian media; nobody was sure whether to take her seriously or not.
The Moscow News reported a few days later that Russian biathlon fans wanted Prokhorov’s head on a plate. But while both the firing and Zaitseva’s retirement were assumed to be hasty decisions, the coach and the star seem to be gone for good.
Both the relay result, which was the worst ever by the Russian women, and the personnel changes have brought to the fore questions that had been trickling though the Russian media all year, mainly these: how was the team being run, and why weren’t the athletes faster?
A Lack of Organization
For Zaitseva, her coach’s dismissal was the straw that broke the camel’s back after a year of poor relationships within the team.
“I do not like [it],” she later told Eurosport Russia. “Very annoying … just such an ugly act. The World Championships were not over, the race is still going on, and then suddenly… therefore, my personal desire to continue working with the team is not there.”
Khovantsev, while realizing that he probably wouldn’t have kept his job regardless, was also unimpressed with his boss’s tactics. He told the media after the race that he had learned from a media attaché that he was no longer needed by the team.
“I realized that if there were no medals, it would be a question of [who to fire],” he told Sport Express. “But I thought that we would analyze the work done, identify the errors and identify their perpetrators, whoever they were. And then leadership would decide who had to leave.
“Therefore, I was certainly surprised about the insulting manner in which this dismissal was made – it was a complete surprise.”
Khovantsev was not, officially, the head coach of the women’s team. His title was something that translates to “team coach”, and there was no official head coach of the women’s team. Khovantsev was told when he was hired that the team was trying a European style of management.
“I was wary, but decided not to judge the decision in the heat of the moment, and try it,” he explained. “Now I can say that it was a mistake. And this division of powers between the coaches on functional training, shooting and technique – that too. It should be the responsibility of all of one person, a senior manager.”
In Khovantsev’s mind, the lack of a head coach let some details slip through the cracks. And to make the problem even worse, the RBU began demanding better results in December, even though they had told Khovantsev to focus on peaking for World Championships, which didn’t start until March.
“Our mistake was that we could not stay with the original plan, changed it, and eventually got ‘neither there nor there,’” Khovantsev said.
Once athletes began to underperform, team morale headed south. Vladimir Barnashov, who coordinated the men’s and women’s teams, claimed on a Russian biathlon website that the women had “mutinied” and refused to work with Khovantsev.
Some athletes, however, shared Khovantsev’s frustration with the RBU.
“The sustained pressure on the team last year was terrible, especially by management,” Zaitseva told WinterSport News.
And her teammate Sleptsova had a unique way of looking at the disastrous relay.
“You know, I think it’s even good that we lost the World Championships relay so miserably,” she told SkiSport Russia. “If we had a medal, perhaps they’d say that the national team was all right… and the problem would be easier to ignore.”
Alexander Tikhonov, vice-president of the RBU, reportedly discussed the team with President Medvedev. Among his concerns were the lack of a clear structure on the team, exactly the issue that Khovantsev himself said was limiting.
Everyone in Russia seems to agree that the biathlon team is broken – but how to fix it remains to be seen. The fans at rusbiathlon.ru wrote a petition to President Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in which they called for Prokhorov’s dismissal.
“Russian biathlon is being destroyed in front of the fans, and we do not intend to put up with it,” the letter said. “We think that the RBU, headed by president Mikhail Prokhorov… is responsible for the current state of affairs in biathlon… We are asking you not to allow the final collapse of Russian biathlon.”
Rifts and Misunderstandings
While poor planning at the national level seems to be partially to blame for the team’s difficulties, some athletes said that they disliked working with Khovantsev. One of them was Sleptsova, a six-time World Cup winner who is seen as Zaitseva’s successor.
The 24-year-old had initially been enthusiastic about the new coach, but later began to doubt his training plan.
“Last summer, when the women’s team was taken over by [Khovantsev] and we began working, everything seemed wonderful,” she told Sport-Express. “I didn’t just do what the coach said, but gave myself to the work completely… [then] the training plan was drawn up as if for one week. He simply repeated it over and over again, without changing even in small things. This went on all summer, all fall, and all winter.”
The Russian athletes had expected results to improve with a new training strategy, but they did not. While Sleptsova had been aiming to move up in the overall World Cup standings this season, both she and Zaitseva lost several places. In addition, the Russian women didn’t win a single medal at World Championships.
Sleptsova also had personal issues with Khovantsev stemming from the Obersdorf World Cup, when she was left off of the relay team. She felt that the head coach did not treat her with respect. Khovantsev, however, claimed that some decisions, such as which athletes to start on the World Cup or include on relay teams, were dictated to him by the RBU.
The two butted heads again later in the season, when Sleptsova had to decide whether to go to a team training camp in Ridnaun, Italy, or to the World Cups in Presque Isle and Fort Kent. Because she did not feel she could have an honest conversation with Khovantsev, she said, she was “pushed to extremes” – and went to the U.S., to the detriment of her later performances.
Khovantsev said that he had not recommended the trip, and did not understand why Sleptsova went.
“For many seasons, her results have deteriorated over the course of winter, yet she continues to race. She needed to rest, and it did not happen. From other interviews, you’ve probably heard that I was totally against her trip to America.”
Despite the fact that she didn’t seem sad to see him go, Sleptsova didn’t carry a grudge, perhaps because she knew that some of the mistakes, particularly the American adventure, had been her own.
“You know, I don’t by any means want to blame the coaches for me not getting results,” she said. “The main thing is that I want to understand it for myself.”
And Natalia Guseva, who recently won a national championship, said that she didn’t understand what all the fuss was about with Khovantsev’s training plan.
“When it comes to a new coach, it is always difficult… he gets used to the athletes, and the athletes to his methodology and requirements,” she told Sport Express. “To some, this training came up, and someone… we can’t say that the coaches worked badly or something and we did not perform. We need to analyze and draw correct conclusions for next season.”
Back to Zaitseva
Regardless of the root of the team’s problems, one thing seems to be clear: Khovantsev is gone, and at 32 years of age, so is Zaitseva.
“Everyone thinks that she said it in a temper, because of the poor performance at World Championships,” Sleptsova told Sport Express. “But I know how much Olga suffers when she is away from her son. I still do not believe that she will leave- I do not want to believe it. For all of us she is like a rock… And to replace Olga in this capacity, no one can do that.”
Khovanstev agreed about Zaitseva’s personality and position on the team, but said that he was shocked at her announcement.
“[It was] totally unexpected,” he told Sport Express. “To say I was dumbfounded – it does not begin to describe it. I came off the course, and learned that she heard the news about my dismissal, and said she was retiring. I hope this wasn’t spur of the moment… I can say that it was a pleasure to work with her. She is a woman with tremendous athletic achievements, both hard-working and humble. A very nice person.”
His comments suggest that even though his firing was one of the factors that led Zaitseva to walk away from the team, the two were not particularly close. Instead, Sleptsova knew more about her teammate’s inner thoughts and motives.
Zaitseva confirmed that she had been contemplating retirement for some time.
“The idea began to grow long ago, right after the Olympics, and became stronger throughout the current season,” she said to Europsport Russia. “Psychologically I have already burned out.
“I have a family, a baby…” she continued. “I realized that when the Olympics are held in 2014, it will be time for him to go to school… I want him to grow up with me.”
She has repeatedly said that while she was frustrated with the team and its management, she appreciated the support she has received from fans.
“With all my truthful heart I want to thank all those who support and understand me,” she wrote on her website. “You reinforced my faith in real fans. And to all the other people, I’ll say that a friend in need is a friend indeed. I won’t ask for forgiveness – I’ve nothing to make excuses for.”
When asked whether a comeback for 2014 Olympic Games in Socchi was a possibility, the answer was no.
“I have no desire to keep working in this team,” she concluded.