As the FIFA World Cup drew to a close, football fans can look back on a marvellous tournament that has showcased the nation of Russia. They have celebrated the successes of their countries or are looking forward to a better outcome in 2022. But the World Cup is not the only international sporting event that takes place every four years where Russia has made a significant contribution; The World Games has also witnessed many outstanding Russian performances.
Although Cold War politics prevented the Soviet Union (as it was then) from accepting the invitation to send a team to Santa Clara, California for the inaugural edition of The World Games in 1981, Russia has gone on to become one of the leading nations at the international sporting festival. It was in fact only at the 1989 edition in Karlsruhe that Russian athletes first made an appearance. But having given Italy and USA a head-start in overall medals won, Russia has quickly made up lost ground. For the last four editions they have topped the medal table, and their record haul in Wroclaw in 2017 means they now have a clear lead over Italy in terms of editions won. The Russian team in Poland had many outstanding athletes; here is a selection of their most remarkable competitors.
Great wrestling nation
You might reasonably expect that as Sumo Wrestling is the national sport of Japan, athletes from the Asian country would dominate the podium; however your expectation would be completely wrong. The first day of competition in Wroclaw had the feel of Groundhog Day: a Russian wrestler would enter the dojo for the gold-medal match; the athlete would bow to his opponent and then a few minutes later bow to the referee having vanquished the said opponent. After a few more minutes, the Russian competitor would ascend to the top step of the podium, and a stirring but strangely familiar national anthem would ring out across the arena. During the two days of competition, this exact ritual was acted out six times in total.
On two occasions the golden beneficiary wasVasily Margiev, a true Russian bear of a man. His technique was simple but devastatingly effective: he would charge towards his opposite number and use his giant girth to push his hapless victim out of the ring! It was like watching a bulldozer shifting humans rather than earth. Margiev’s victories in the men's heavyweight and open categories mean he now has four medals, having gained silver and bronze in Cali four years earlier.
The most successful wrestler ever at The World Games is Anna Zhigalova, who competes in the equivalent categories in the women's divisions. Her gold run started in Kaohsiung in 2009, topping the podium in both events, and she then successfully defended her titles in Cali in 2013. The good news for her competitors in Wroclaw was that her name did not feature on the start list; the bad news was that she had got married and was now competing as Anna Poliakova. The name may have changed but in Poland, it was business as usual for the Russian star. The sixth gold medal now adorns her bulging trophy cabinet; should she compete in Birmingham in 2021 there is a distinct possibility of golds seven and eight!
FinSwimming is big in Russia
It would not be a surprise if the Russian team that arrives in Alabama is sponsored by a manufacturer of chocolate mints. Poliakova is not the only Russian competitor ‘after eight’; it is quite feasible that in Birmingham, FinSwimming's Pavel Kabanovand Valeriya Baranovskaya and Rhythmic Gymnasts Arina and Dina Averinawill also be standing on the podium for the eighth time. Finswimming is a fast and fun variant of the aquatic discipline, where competitors strap giant fins to their legs and swim underwater. The effect is like seeing a school of dolphins deciding to have a race. The sport has consistently proved to be a reliable source for the Kremlin to increase their gold reserves.
The tone was set by Serguei Akhapov. The first three times that Russia competed at The World Games, he came away with an impressive 13-medal haul in total. Highlights included hearing his national anthem being played eight times. Vasilia Kravchuk, a five-time champion, finished her career in Cali as another member of the eight-medal club. Alexandre Netchiatailoalso hogged the top step of the podium, the difference being that his five golds came in a single edition, that held in Lahti in 1997.
Move over Michael Phelps: Pavel Kabanov can legitimately claim that he is the fastest swimmer on the planet. The use of fins enables the athletes to move through the water twice as fast as Olympic swimmers, and Kobanov is the current world record holder; nobody has ever swum 50 m faster than him. In Wroclaw, the swimmer from Novosibirsk claimed a hat-trick of titles in the 4 x 100 m surface relay, having also been a member of the victorious teams in Chinese Taipei and Colombia. His individual victory in the 50 m with snorkel gave him a magnificent seven medals. Baranovskaya has competed at the same editions as Kabanov, and two silvers in the 400 m and 4 x 100 m relay in Kaohsiung were upgraded to gold in both 2013 and 2017.
Identical gymnast twins
Arina and Dina score highly for difficulty even before they set foot on the gymnastics mat: it is virtually impossible to tell these identical twins apart! Their performances in Wroclaw charmed the judges and the many fans packed into the Centennial Hall. Arina just edged out her younger sister (by 20 minutes) in three of the disciplines. Dina struck gold in the clubs final with Arina having to settle for a rare bronze medal. Someone who did win all four gold medals available was Evgenia Kanaeva, who dominatedthe 2009 edition of The World Games. The greatest rhythmic gymnast in history won a record 17 World Championships, and her victory in London in 2012 meant she became the only gymnast to successfully defend her Olympic title.
Other Russian athletes to look out for in the lead up to Birmingham include Sergey Fedosienko (Powerlifting), Daria Guryevaand Daria Kalinina (Acrobatic Gymnastics), Yulia Kaplina (Speed Climbing) Ilia Borok (Ju-Jitsu)and Svetlana Vinnikova (Muaythai)Every one of these is a top-class competitor, and hopefully they will all get the opportunity to defend the titles they won so impressively in Wroclaw.
Memorable moments when Russia meets USA
Whenever the sporting super-powers of USA and Russia meet, memorable moments occur such as ‘The Miracle on Ice’ where a group of college students defeated the mighty Red Machine in ice hockey, or the controversial Soviet Union gold in the 1972 Olympic basketball final. As host nation of The World Games in 2021, USA will be allocated athlete places in every sport, so unlike Santa Clara, there will be many opportunities for the Americans to test themselves against the outstanding Russian team. They will need to be at their best if they are going to prevail against such experienced competitors. With the backing of enthusiastic fans, anything is possible and the Birmingham edition of The World Games could end up being the most memorable and dramatic ever seen.
In the next articles of this series, we will take a look at other successful nations at The World Games.
Brian Salmon for The World Games
The World Games is a multi-sport event staged every four years by the International World Games Association under the patronage of the International Olympic Committee. The 11th edition of The World Games will be held in Birmingham, Alabama, USA, 15-25 July 2021. 3,600 athletes from over 30 sports and 100 countries will take part in the Games.