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“Everything will fall apart in five years”: Commentator Alexander Shmurnov on the future of Russian sports

The Russian government’s attitude to national high-performance sports and the ramifications of the war it is waging in Ukraine will result in rapid decay even in the disciplines that enjoyed robust development and featured world-renowned athletes. Sports journalist and commentator Alexander Shmurnov shares this perspective in a live stream for The Insider. According to him, Russian sports will hit rock bottom in just five or six years.

“Russian tennis is in for a period of pronounced decline. You may have seen the address by [tennis player Daria] Kasatkina and [Andrey] Rublev, in which they reflect on what they owe to the state, what the state has or hasn't done for them, and what the future has in store for them – for instance, if they were to compete under a different flag.

This won’t be an isolated incident. I’ll give you an example that’s more down-to-earth. Evgeny Kafelnikov, the legendary tennis champion, is currently helping his 12-year-old nephew to become a professional tennis player. What he says allows us to draw conclusions about the system. According to Evgeny, it is crucial for young tennis players to participate in high-level tournaments in an appropriate age category. Without it, the entire building crumbles. For the moment, young Russian tennis players can't travel to Europe to compete in tournaments; if they can't compete, they can't progress in their training.

“Young Russian tennis players can't make it to tournaments, so they can't progress”

Many choose to stay with their parents. Those who stay in the US join American tennis academies and become members, with an opportunity to compete under the US jurisdiction. The same goes for France, Germany, and Spain – there are plenty of academies in Europe. We only have a handful of academies, and it’s always been a challenge. However, in the 1990s, we managed to build a system that fostered talented players – despite lacking in capacity and infrastructure.

Last year, we won the Davis Cup and the Federation Cup; we have plenty of champions and Grand Slam winners. It will all be gone in five years, though, if the state keeps treating stars like Kasatkina and Rublev in such a way: ‘Either you're with us and agree with everything we say, or you can get lost.’

The athletes are doing the right thing. Tennis has always been an individual, transborder, international discipline. There are competitions for national teams, but a tennis player spends 50 out of 52 weeks a year on the road. If you tell them they are stranded from now on, they won’t be tennis players anymore.

Athletes have been robbed of their goals. Take hockey, for instance, which has been Russia’s most rapidly and efficiently developing sport in the last twenty years, if not in its entire history. Everyone's goal in hockey is the National Hockey League. It’s one of the best modern tournaments in terms of organization, budgeting, approaches – everything. Any father from Moscow, Chelyabinsk, Khabarovsk, or Nizhny Novgorod understands that, if his son were to take up hockey, the highest achievement for the entire family would be to get him to play in the National Hockey League. This is a way to earn a living and support a family, achieve success, and become a sports celebrity. New hockey stars emerge every year.

“Athletes have been robbed of their goals”

Hockey was indeed booming. The Continental Hockey League (KHL), which borrowed heavily from the NHL, was also a great help. The KHL came to rank second in the world. I don't think we can boast of such successes in any other sport. However, Ivan Fedotov is being shipped off to Novaya Zemlya <The Insider's note: an archipelago in the Russian Arctic where the hockey player has been assigned for mandatory military service>, and NHL scouts say: ‘So we’ve signed a contract with a player, and now he's off to the army, which is almost like a prison. In this case, we’d better refrain from scouting players in Russia.’ So the dad from Chelyabinsk thinks: ‘Right, so I make sure my son becomes a pro, invest all my family’s money and resources in his training, and then he’ll end up on Novaya Zemlya instead of Philly. Might as well take up sky jumping, as the risks are lower.’ Hockey could hit rock bottom in just five or six years. It’s a disgrace. And it’s happening in all sports. I’m especially sad about the decline of disciplines enjoyed healthy, swift development.”

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