German Olympic and World Champion biathlete Ricco Gross will coach the Russian men’s team in the upcoming season. After much discussion and speculation, the appointment was announced on Aug. 12.
Gross won four Olympic gold medals, in the relays at Albertville (1992), Lillehammer (1994), Nagano (1998), and Torino (2006). His eight total Olympic medals place him second on the all-time list, and he has 20 World Championships medals to his name as well.
Gross retired in 2007. Since 2010, hehad since been coaching with the Germans, first with the women’s World Cup team, and most recently with the IBU Cup team.
Gross, 44, will work together with Vladimir Bragin, who had previously been announced in April to head the “B” team for the Russian men. However, he will reportedly work with top athletes like Anton Shipulin, who placed second in the World Cup Total Score last season, and Evgeniy Garanichev.
The contract runs through the 2017/2018 season, and Gross will remain based primarily in Ruhpolding, Germany, with his family.
“We have a very strong team in Russia,” Gross said in a press release from the Russian Biathlon Union. “My main aim is to make this team better… Obviously, my long-term aim is the preparation for the Olympic Winter Games 2018. We have to go step by step to this goal. We have to become better and unlock our potential. I am sure that Olympic Winter Games in South Korea can be successful for us. There are so many strong athletes in Russia.”
After Gross did not continue his contract with the Deutscher Skiverband after the 2014/2015 season, it was initially speculated that he would take a job coaching for Ukraine. Volodimir Bryznak, the president of the Ukraine Biathlon Union even announced the staffing shift.
On April 7, the day the contract was set to be signed, the deal fell through.
“He wrote that the circumstances have changed,” Bryznak said. “I guess he had a much better offer.”
The motivation to leave the German team seems to have come at least partially from a desire to have more control over a training group.
“Becoming the senior coach for the Russian men’s team is a big challenge for me,” Gross said in the press release. “I had been working with the German’s national team; now, I start to work as the senior coach in Russia. It gives me more freedom by making the decisions and the relevant responsibility.”
Gross becomes the second high-profile German to head to Russia. The first, Wolfgang Pichler, worked with the women’s team in what was ultimately an unsuccessful partnership.
Pichler had been an avid critic of Russia’s doping program and was hired ostensibly to provide some respectability to the program.
But Pichler was not given full access to all athletes, with some choosing to train with Vladimir Korolkevich.
The anti-doping effort did not work. Two Russian women who trained with Korolkevich, Irina Starykh and Ekaterina Iourieva, were banned on doping violations in January 2014.
Pichler told The New York Times, among other outlets, that he had been certain Iourieva was doping, and had brought concerns about Korolkevich’s program to the Russian federation. Nothing was done.
Instead, two weeks before the Olympics began in Sochi, Korolkevich was promoted over Pichler to head the women’s team there.
Then in the midst of the Games Pichler was removed from the team, creating chaos and drawing ire from Olga Zaitzeva, one of the team’s biggest stars and a gold medalist from the 2010 Olympics.
“I do not agree that he was removed, and I will fight for Wolfgang,” Zaitseva said between races in Sochi. “We worked with him well, and I will not pour dirt on him. For the results you should be asking the rest of the coaching staff.”
And that was not the only drama at the Olympics. Another athlete who had chosen Pichler’s training group, Ekaterina Glazyrina, was expelled from the team after criticizing Pichler on her website.
The comments were later removed, with Glazyrina stating, “Of course my main mistake was to choose the wrong group and the wrong coach. I did not have a great dialogue with Pichler from day one and therefore we did not get the results we wanted. I regret training with Pichler very much.”
Pichler said in an interview after ending leaving the team at the end of the 2014 season that the worst part about the job was reading terrible things about himself in the press and on the internet. In a separate interview, he spoke of how one journalist relentlessly attacked him every time the two met.
“Very often it looked like a blatant harassment, and was not just me – if I experienced would be easy – but the people who were in my team,” he said.
He pointed out that when his team was compared to the women’s teams of the earlier 2000’s, it was an unfair comparison: those teams were plagued by doping scandals. But he enjoyed working with the women, claimed he had positive relationships with them, and said they never lacked for motivation.
So what does Gross have to look forward to?
“There was no dialogue,” Pichler said in April 2014. “The sports ministry constantly interfered with the work. This is what has become a major problem for me… [Yet] it was clear that none of the so-called ‘experts’ were not going to be responsible for the result.”
Gross may already be facing some of the challenges that Pichler encountered: comments on the popular nordic news site Skisport.ru already are questioning why an “outsider” should have been hired.
And it’s not just fans. Anatoliy Khovantsev, a former national team coach who now works with 2015 World Champion Ekaterina Yurlova outside the national team framework, was also unimpressed with the hiring.
“He has a very positive reputation, which he won as an athlete,” Khovantsev said. “I cannot say anything bad about him, but the euphoria in connection with this appointment I did not feel. For a while, he will have to adapt with the Russian athletes, and only after a long period of time it will be possible to evaluate its performance.”
Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.