When Russian president Vladimir Putin spent a reported £30 billion to allow the staging of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, he and a nationwide audience may have expected a better display from the nation’s ice hockey team. After starting the tournament as second favourites behind Canada, an unexpected 3-1 quarter-final defeat by Finland was not well received by the watching public.
Although the old Soviet Union was a dominant force in Olympic ice hockey prior to the 1990’s, since American National Hockey League (NHL) players were allowed into the tournament, the Russian federation team has yet to win the gold medal. Several of the Russia team earn their living in the lucrative NHL, none more so than leading points scorer Alexander Ovechkin, of whom great things were expected by the home nation.
Russia were drawn in the opposite part of the draw from Canada and the United States for the Sochi tournament with a final against one of the western powerhouses expected to draw the attention of millions in a nation hungry for the success of their ice hockey team in a home Olympic tournament.
After finishing second to United States in Group A and then beating Norway 4-0 in the qualification play-offs, the pairing of Russia against their tiny Finnish neighbours in the quarter-finals was expected to be a formality for the hosts.
Unfortunately for the watching spectators in the arena, Finland did not read the script. Despite conceding an early strike to the Russians, the Finnish team regrouped and marched into a 3-1 lead withstanding a late onslaught from a desperate home team to advance into the semi-finals. While Russia goalminder Semyon Varlamov was guilty of several calamitous mistakes, Tuukka Rask repeatedly repelled the home attack with several quality saves.
When the Russian team try to acknowledge the home support at the end of the match, they were met with jeers and whistles from those supporters who remained at the arena. Further harsh questioning from the disappointed media was reserved for officials and players who attended the post-match press conference.
For Ovechkin, who will now return to his lucrative contract with Washington Capitals in the NHL, the Sochi Olympics were somewhat of a personal nightmare. With only one goal and a solitary assist from his playing time, his performances slipped below their usual standard as the pressures to succeed in front of a demanding home nation appeared to be too much of a burden.
Although the Russian Federation continues to earn its fair share of medals during the 2014 winter Olympics, the prize of capturing the ice hockey gold medal for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union remains as elusive as ever.
It may also be viewed as a missed opportunity to unite a nation in a common sporting interest.