Russia’s Olympic Committee chief Alexander Zhukov in an exclusive interview has told TASS about the details of Russian athletes' ban on participation in the Olympics and Paralympics in Rio, his ancestry, and his passion for golf.
- So was the experience worth it? And what exactly was it worth?
- It depends on whose experience you are referring to – my own or the Russian athletes’.
- I’m referring to the whole Russian team, which some of our media talking heads have dubbed Olym-peccable.
- In reality, the team was impeccable. Besides, it was also absolutely competitive and doping-free. Contrary to all the gloomy forecasts and speculations to the effect that Russian athletes allegedly owe their achievements to a “state-run doping program.” Our team in Rio de Janeiro won 56 medals, including nineteen gold ones. I believe our guys gave a glittering performance.
Indeed, the experience we gained at the Rio Olympics was colossal. Not only at the competitions, but during the whole period that had preceded the events. On the eve of the competition, the points of contention were the disqualification of the Russian Olympic Committee and the blackballing of the whole Russian team from the participants’ list. That was the gist of the demands we heard from WADA, the IOC’s Athletes Commission and the national anti-doping committees of fourteen countries, including Austria, Canada, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Spain, Germany, Japan, Switzerland, the Netherlands and the United States. The charges against us were based on the report authored by the independent commission under Richard McLaren. His message looked pretty much like an ultimatum to IOC President Thomas Bach. It came on the eve of the emergency meeting of the IOC’s Executive Board in Lausanne on July 21. The threat of being left overboard looked extremely serious. I then addressed the IOC Executive Board to recall that for the previous six months the Russian anti-doping system had been under the full control of the British anti-doping agency, UKAD, that all probes of our athletes had been taken by foreign doping officers and brought to foreign laboratories for testing. Russian athletes participating in international tournaments, I said, were subject to systematic doping tests. Consequently, there were no reasons whatsoever to suspect that they had been not tested properly. It would be utterly wrong to introduce collective responsibility for somebody else’s faults. The rights of “clean” Russian athletes, who had never used doping, should be protected, as well as the rights of their foreign counterparts. I also said it would look strange if US sprinters Tyson Gay and Justin Gatlin, repeatedly found guilty of doping violations, were allowed to come to Rio, while Yelena Isinbayeva and Sergey Shubenkov, who had never had any problems with WADA or RUSADA, had to stay at home.
With just two weeks to go before the Games began, the IOC Executive Board turned an attentive ear to our arguments and ruled that Russian athletes would be allowed to participate in the Olympics on the condition of meeting certain conditions.
- Were you satisfied?
- An overall ban was the sole alternative. We reacted to that as a positive move. But the restrictions we faced were rather harsh. In fact, each Russian athlete was expected to prove he was doping-free and the international federations concerned were to reaffirm this. The International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF) suspended the membership of the All-Russia Athletic Federation (ARAF) back last year. It had put forward a number of demands and most of them had been met by last summer. I’m referring to the multiple doping tests our track-and-field athletes had to undergo between competitions both inside and outside Russia and to the suspension of all those who had ever violated anti-doping rules. We presented a list of 68 track-and-field athletes, but then all of a sudden the IAAF declared: the Olympics would be open only to those Russians who had stayed abroad and trained there for the previous several years. It goes without saying that that condition, established in retrospect, was impossible to meet.
- But most athletes in other sports managed to get through the door at the very last moment, as it was about to be shut in their face…
- Now, that it is all over, I can tell how it really happened … When the IOC empowered the international federations to decide whether to let Russian athletes compete or not, I heard many say that the Russians would manage to put together a team of forty at the most. Then the list grew to 150… In the end, Russia sent a team of 280 athletes to Rio.
Each international federation had to be contacted separately. There where relations were constructive everything was far easier. Negotiating with the others was not easy at all. First we’d been told that only those who passed doping tests for the previous six months abroad would be allowed to compete. We looked into the matter and it turned out that in handball seven of our women players had not been tested at all, neither at home nor abroad. We were told to find substitutes who had successfully passed doping tests to replace these seven. But how could this have been done? The coach, Yevgeny Trefilov, didn’t have a bench that long. And nobody else had! It took quite an effort to explain to our counterparts that in team sports there are no comprehensive, wholesale doping tests. Once a match is over, two or three players are selected for testing and that’s standard practice. The same happened in men’s volleyball, where eight players had never been probed over doping. Once again we were forced to explain that no team in the world has ever taken regular and comprehensive doping tests. In the end, we came to the conclusion that each sport must be treated individually and other teams taken into account as benchmarks. If our state of affairs does not constitute a breach of the established practice, Russians can be allowed to compete.
That’s how it all proceeded round after round. It took a while to iron out relations with FINA (the international governing body of swimming, diving, water polo, synchronized swimming and open water swimming). The McLaren report allegedly mentioned some athletes, for instance, swimmers Vladimir Morozov and Nikita Lobintsev. It was the same old story again - all those mentioned would not go to Rio. We asked what the report had stated in particular and in what context.
- Did you get a chance to see the full text of the WADA commission’s report?
- Of course. Here it is, on my desk. I can give it to you to read. But you won’t see any names there.
- Where did they come from then?
- From the notebooks of the well-known informers…
Later, McLaren would say that his commission had no time to look into the cases of individual athletes. Yet, the blacklist turned up.
To put it in a nutshell, FINA made an official request for explanations on what exactly the Russian swimmers were to blame for. But, no reply followed. Then the federation told the McLaren Commission: “Sorry, but we can’t help.” And the Court of Arbitration for Sport allowed Morozov and Lobintsev to compete.
Our envoys to other sports federations then started acting in the same fashion. Individual lawsuits were filed at the CAS and many of the cases were won.
A final decision regarding the Russian team was made by a special IOC troika – the head of the IOC’s Medical Commission, Ugur Erdener, of Turkey, IOC Board member Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr., and the commission’s chief, Claudia Bokel, one of our main opponents. Bokel was adamant that the whole Russian team should be banned from the Olympics. In a word, the scales could have swayed either way, at any moment.
In fact, we lost all track-and-field athletes, except for Klishina, who has long lived and trained in the United States, and all weight-lifters. But the situation in the latter sport, it was really disastrous.
In all other disciplines, we managed to protect a large group of our team’s members. Possibly, except for rowing. The situation there was basically normal but, sadly, our federation and the international one proved unable to find a common language. Most Russian rowers passed many doping tests of late, but the FISA – the international rowing federation, refused to recognize them, and the Russian federation failed to protect the athletes’ rights.
The situation in gymnastics – artistic and rhythmic – was not simple, either. In modern rhythmic gymnastics, some participants are quite young. So far they’ve had a chance to participate in just a couple of senior international tournaments. Naturally, there was no chance for them to pass enough doping tests. We were told: go and find substitutes. But how can that be done in team events, where synchronization and timing are expected to have clock-work precision? Just one dropout may ruin the whole team. We proposed a solution, we made extra doping tests while some were still in training in Portugal, and others, in Brazil. The decision-makers agreed to meet us halfway and eventually allowed everybody to participate without exceptions.
Some of our wrestlers remained in limbo up to the last moment. But everything was corrected on time…
In Rio, our team was checked far more often than any other team. We, nevertheless, were prepared for that. As a result, the athletes displayed greater unity and grew stronger. I use the word “team” in the board sense – the athletes, the coaches, the medical staff, the federations’ leaders and the Russian Olympic Committee.
- Would it be correct to say that the Russian Olympic Committee and Alexander Zhukov have done a far better job than the Russian Paralympic Committee and its chief Vladimir Lukin? The Olympic team was eventually allowed to go to Rio, while the parathletes were denied participation.
- There is nothing to compare. The IOC and the IPC have different structures and work differently. Putting pressures on a collective body is far more difficult than on one person. The decision to keep our team away was made by just one man, Philip Craven, the IPC president, at his sole discretion. And the political pressures on him, including the campaign in the western media, were colossal, one can be sure about that. The IOC placed sports interests above anything else, it tried really hard to keep the Olympic movement united and preserve Russia’s membership at that movement. The IPC, on the other hand, succumbed to pressures, so there you have it.
Amazingly, at the IOC session, Craven voted for letting clean Russian athletes compete in Rio, but at the same time he stripped Russian parathletes of this right… I am certain that his decision was wrong and history will prove it. The McLaren report contains no significant criticism of the RPC. Consequently, all of the repressive measures that followed were not legitimate.
I’m at a loss for words to say what has been written and is still being written in the Western media about Thomas Bach in retaliation for the IOC’s decision against disqualifying Russia. It’s just hair-raising! It’s beyond good and evil! In reality, Bach did a lot to prevent a split and preserve the Games. Now he is being accused of playing into Russia’s hands.
- Have they tried to take digs at you?
- Non-stop! Whenever foreign journalists came up to me, I explained Russia’s stance in detail. But I’d already said the same things at the IOC session that was telecast live. Everyone who cared could easily hear that in our opinion the Olympic movement was exposed to unprecedented pressures and living through the most dramatic moment in modern sports history. Something of that sort happened in the early 1980s, when the Socialist bloc countries missed the Los Angeles Olympics. That was done in retaliation for the boycott of the Moscow Olympics. No reruns should ever be allowed.
The IOC supported Russia. The delegates almost unanimously voted in our favor. Only Adam Penguilly, of Britain, a member of the IOC Athletes’ Commission was against.
- A couple of months before Rio, when our track-and-field athletes were already having problems, you told me that it would be wrong to look for a political component in what was going on. Now you’ve changed your mind…
- But how can it be otherwise at a time when the sports ministers of some countries have put their signatures on official demands for barring Russia from the Games, when US senators said in public the United States was paying money to WADA when the agency was too slow to consider suspicions on Russian athletes being in breach of doping rules and even refrained from a decision on their disqualification? That’s politics. And the International Paralympic Committee’s decision to prohibit all of our athletes with disabilities from competing in Rio without presenting any reasons or plausible explanations is also very far from real sportsmanship.
- But didn’t we let the right moment slip away, thereby allowing the rift to flare up? When Maria Sharapova received the first black mark and confessed she’d been taking meldonium, it was already pretty clear that the affair would not die down.
- Let’s start at the beginning. The meldonium affair is the World Anti-Doping Agency’s gross mistake and it may cost WADA dearly. I said that outright at the IOC session in Rio de Janeiro. The decision regarding this medical drug was made without conducting the necessary laboratory and medical tests. First and foremost, nobody had even taken the trouble of finding out how long it took meldonium to leave the human body. The introduction of the ban as of January 1, 2016 and the following doping tests in February and March, when dozens tested positive for this substance in their blood and were subjected to sanctions, was a hasty and groundless decision by WADA and they realized that when it was already too late. The final conclusions were postponed first till March 1, and then till October 1. Research is still in progress, but by now it is clear that WADA experts have gone too far. The affected athletes will certainly file civil lawsuits. The process will be continued.
- Were there any chances of protecting Sharapova and letting her play at the Games?
- Maria stated at a news conference she had used the drug after the date of the official ban. The other sanctioned athletes have not taken it after January 1, 2016. This is a very different subject.
As far as WADA is concerned, it came under serious criticism and not only at the IOC session. When the Games were already over, the anti-doping agencies of seventeen countries issued a call for WADA’s radical reform. There will certainly be changes, and fundamental ones. I have no doubts on that score. WADA dared to assume certain powers that are beyond its range of competence, when it advised the IOC to suspend this or that country, as it was the case with Russia. The agency’s activity is not transparent. How many samples are to be taken? Who is to be selected for testing? On what principles? Why are the very same athletes endlessly tested between competitions while others remain untouchable? What’s the reason for such selectivity? There are so many of these questions. The IOC will hold its summit soon to discuss reorganizing the whole anti-doping system. A session of the International Olympic Committee devoted to the same theme may follow, so changes are due.
- But wouldn’t you agree that this will be poor consolation for those of our “clean” athletes who were forced to sit out the Rio Olympics.
- If it is the athletes’ response you are asking me about, they are going to file civil lawsuits against the IAAF. In Rio, I had a word with Sebastian Coe, the federation’s president. By that time, the IOC had already made a fundamental decision to allow the Russian team to compete at the Games. The lists were already being finalized. I told the IAAF chief that the door in front of him and his colleagues was still open widely to correct the injustice committed towards our athletes, because the federation had put forward criteria that could not be met in any way. The CAS stated that quite clearly. I told him that if the IAAF was determined to dedicate itself to litigations with Russian athletes, it could leave everything as it is. The next day, Coe dispatched a message to the IOC members to brief them that he had a conversation with yours truly, who insisted the IAAF should change its decision and warned of the imminent string of civil lawsuits.
- In other words, Coe complained about an attempt to put pressure on him?
- In a sense…But it was really amazing to see Coe behave in such a manner. After all, he is a champion of the 1980 Olympics. He came to Moscow in defiance of his government’s decision and competed under the white five-ringed Olympic flag, because he had no right to carry the British flag! It might seem that Coe should know the real value of an athlete’s participation in the Olympic Games better than anyone else. It’s turned out otherwise…
As a result some of the track-and-field events lost much of their value, because Russians were absent. Take women’s pole vault. Who stood to gain? Our athletes, who’d spent four years getting ready for the occasion, were greatly harmed. The same applies to the other participants and to the spectators, who were denied a chance to see all the very best.
- Incidentally, has any of the IAAF officials congratulated Yelena Isinbayeva on her election to the IOC Athletes’ Commission?
- To my mind, this is of no great importance any longer. It is far more significant that the athletes of different countries, who gathered in Rio conveyed this gesture of trust and elected Yelena as their delegate to the International Olympic Committee. I believe this is a great lesson for the IAAF to learn. Incidentally, not all IOC members then voted for the decision to endorse Isinbayeva. Her election surely made some see red.
- Clearly, certain concessions had to be made on the eve of the Rio de Janeiro Olympics. Will the mode of relations with the IOC remain the same? After all, one who keeps dreaming up excuses is doomed to fight a losing battle.
- What will happen now? The IOC has set up two commissions. IOC Executive Board member Denis Oswald leads one, which will scrutinize all facts related to the Sochi Winter Olympics. The other, under Guy Canivet, is the disciplinary one, and it will investigate personal information contained in the McLaren report.
The McLaren commission will apparently proceed with its inquiries. Possibly, it may gather some more evidence and testimonies.
- Vyacheslav Fetisov has said on more than one occasion that at a certain point he could’ve run for the position of WADA chief. At the moment, there are no Russian specialists among the agency’s experts at all. Not a single one.
- The Russian government and the Foreign Ministry in particular have supported Fetisov’s candidacy, but, sadly, to little avail, as another contender emerged the winner.
The Russian Sports Ministry maintains cooperation with WADA. Before, the sports minister’s adviser on anti-doping issues, Natalya Zhelanova, was a member of the WADA Finance and Administration Committee and Deputy Sports Minister Pavel Kolobkov attended WADA sessions as a representative of the Council of Europe. Not so now, things are different today. WADA has prohibited Russian officials from taking any positions in the agency as long as RUSADA’s membership remains suspended. To my mind, it is a must for Russia as one of the world’s leading sports powers to have a representative in WADA. We are obliged to restore our own system and to resume the operation of RUSADA and the Moscow anti-doping laboratory. For now, to hold intra-Russian competitions we have to invite foreign doping officers to take samples and to pay with hard currency from the state treasury for their visits. That’s nonsense! We should eliminate the identified shortcomings and to work to counter any violations of international requirements. Nobody should have any doubts: Russia does everything the right way and in full compliance with international rules.
- How prepared are we to step up the fight against doping?
- To the maximum extent. The previous State Duma adopted in the first reading a special bill establishing criminal penalties for the distribution of doping substances. The yet-to-be elected lawmakers will be obliged to take this initiative to its logical outcome.
- Won’t there be any special criminal penalty for those who use doping?
- Then we’d have to prosecute fifteen-year-olds who have taken something their unscrupulous coaches may have added to their meals. Athletes, in particular, young ones, are often not to blame for anything. They cannot be reproached for trusting their trainers too much. But how can a young athlete get suspicious about adults whose job is to coach you and take care of your health, right?
In a future system there should be no place for doping at all. That’s the goal to strive for.
- Apparently, not everybody has realized that. Otherwise it will be hard to explain the origin of the open letter to President Vladimir Putin with a request for defending the good name of Viktor Chegin, the coach of Russian racewalkers in Saransk, who last March was disqualified for life? The letter was signed by 55 petitioners, including Olympic champions Olga Kaniskina and Yelena Lashmanova and world champion Sergey Kirdyapkin, who had problems with doping, which cost them some of their titles. In the eyes of the civilized world the message looks like an attempt to whitewash a wrongdoer whose guilt was proven with one hundred percent certainty, doesn’t it?
- One can understand the way Kaniskina and Kirdyapkin may feel and the disciples’ wish to support their mentor. However, past achievements don’t make one immune from responsibility. Facts are facts. Dozens of trainees at the Saransk race-walking center tested positive for doping, so this explains why it was closed. Appeals to the head of state will not change anything.
- How many Olympics have you been involved with?
- I’ve missed none since 2006. Turin, Beijing, Vancouver, London, Sochi, Rio… I’ve never been an idle spectator or just a fan, though. In Turin, we were already campaigning for the Sochi bid. On behalf of the Russian government, I led the 2014 Games’ organizing committee. I can’t say it was an exhausting job, because I like sports. Each Olympic event is a great holiday. In fact, this is really so. It does not matter where your current job is at the moment – in the Cabinet of Ministers, the State Duma or the Russian Olympic Committee. Wherever I am, my emotions get stirred up when it comes to our athletes.
True, the Rio Olympics hold a very special place for reasons that are too obvious. It is extremely hard to stay uninformed up to the last day on whether your team will be allowed to participate, and then to watch it compete under such pressures. The way I see it, the Russian team’s morale soared. The team was in a very resolute mood.
We’ll summarize the national team’s performance when the ROC Executive Board meets in session in the second half of September. We’ll take a look at each sport, but by now it is clear that we’ve coped with the task quite well, by and large. Incidentally, I’ve seen many articles claiming that Russian athletes were often booed at. Yulia Yefimova’s appearance in the swimming pool was the sole such incident. I was there as she was about to swim and I was able to see and hear everything for myself. It is true that a large group of US fans got noisy when Yulia appeared, but let me repeat that it was an exception. I visited practically all stadiums. I attended various tournaments – judo, fencing, wrestling, handball and gymnastics…and so on. Take it from me: the attitude to our guys was always friendly, although fans from Russia were not as numerous as usual. After all, you have to make allowances for the distance and air fares… Nevertheless, some 35,000 people visited Russia House in Rio, and not just our compatriots, there were many Brazilian visitors, too.
- Did athletes feel their fans’ support?
- We launched two virtual projects. In the first one, everyone was free to send greetings to any member of our team through the Internet. A point on the world’s map from where the message came from lit up. Toward the end of the Games all continents were literally alight. I’ve never heard the names of many localities from where people were sending in their messages! One million eight hundred thousand responded to this initiative. What a stunning result it was!
The second was the Give me Five campaign had a different meaning, a sort of feedback. Our athletes approached a special screen and applied the palm of their hand to it. The images were then transmitted to a great variety of addresses across Russia. Some half a million such greetings were sent out in that way.
Not only did our athletes perform exceptionally well, but the whole Russian delegation, including medical support, did a great job, as well. In Rio de Janeiro we rented a villa where our athletes were free to come for leisure and recreation between and after competitions. I witnessed how Roman Vlasov, a wrestler from Novosibirsk, was literally put back on track after the most dramatic semi-final encounter with a Croat rival, who broke the rules and resorted to a choking technique. Roman lost conscience right there, on the wrestling mat. He managed to pull himself together and score a victory, but his condition was still not very good with just several hours to go before the final fight. Roman was brought to the health support center where he literally got his second wind. In the final, his Danish rival had no chances whatsoever, and the gold was indisputably Vlasov’s.
There are many stories like this one. All of our wrestlers used this center, and so did our gymnasts, women handball players and the volleyball team.
- And did you use it, too?
- Why, naturally I did. Otherwise, I would have never been able to make it to the end of the Games. The Olympics were a real ordeal for me, in terms of the physical exertion and spent emotion. I lost five kilograms in just one month although I’d never suffered from excess weight.
- Is the Russian Olympic Committee a ‘serve-your-country’ assignment that’s unpaid?
- Certainly. I get no salary, although it's been very time-consuming of late.
- You took over the ROC in 2010, when you still held the position of deputy prime minister. And in December 2011, after the State Duma elections you moved to the office of the first deputy speaker. Where do you feel more comfortable – in the executive branch of government or the legislative one?
- In terms of the work load and the schedule, it is somewhat easier in the State Duma. I spent eight years in the government, and I can say with certainty that any job there implies working your fingers to the bone.
The lawmaking process is slower and more rhythmic, while the executive authorities are permanently involved in handling day-to-day issues. If you are responsible for a specific realm of activity, be it the economy or the social sphere, you have to address an endless stream of issues every day that have to be solved without delay. You cannot stop the process, because it is fraught with grave problems. I had a particularly hard time when I was Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov’s only deputy. Disagreements between ministries and other governing bodies are frequent. Never-ending conferences and negotiations had to be held just to have a government resolution adopted. And it went on like this round-the-clock day after day and week after week. In the State Duma, it was calmer in that sense, but certain specific features there - certain problems and peculiarities too - cropped up.
- What region were you elected to represent in 2011?
- I was elected as a representative from Kaliningrad. And now I’m seeking election in Novosibirsk and Omsk.
- But you’ve been unable to take part in this election campaign properly yet, haven’t you?
- What makes you think so?
- Lausanne and Rio de Janeiro are very far away from Siberia.
- People watched the TV news every day and were well aware that I was doing my job, that I was working not just for the sake of the athletes’ interests, but for the sake of the whole country and consequently, for their own sake. This is more important than any wooing of the electorate.
Incidentally, the athletes from Novosibirsk and Omsk were very successful in Rio. They clinched three golds: Roman Vlasov in wrestling, Yulia Gavrilova in fencing and Vera Biryukova, in modern rhythmic gymnastics. Also, there were silver and bronze medalists.
Novosibirsk is an applicant for hosting the Under-20 Ice Hockey Championship in 2023. In principle, we’ve come to terms with the IIHF, the international ice hockey federation. Now we are planning to build a new stadium to substitute for the old one, where the Sibir club plays now. We’ve selected a site and a design concept. We’ll help with the implementation.
As far as electioneering is concerned, I have vast experience, because the first time I was elected to the State Duma, I represented the Eastern district of Moscow. Then I was a member of the second, third and fourth Duma until March 2004, when I was moved to the Cabinet of Ministers to remain there till December 2011.
- Haven’t you ever thought of writing memoirs to look back on your many years as a senior member of the establishment? Surely you have quite a few stories to tell.
- I certainly lack a writer’s itch. I’ve never kept diaries, either, although now I think I should have. It will be naïve to rely on memory alone. With the passage of time events tend to fade beyond recognition in your mind, so it surely makes sense to jot things down right away and then publish them… I see some colleagues of mine issue a book a year… I’m sure I would’ve never managed to do that. Such a task requires some special kind of self-discipline and craving for writing.
At least the type of craving my father had. In his youth, he remained uncertain for quite some time in choosing his future profession. He was a student of two institutions of higher learning – the Military Institute of Foreign Languages and the Philology Department of the Moscow State University.
- How was that possible?
- My dad was attending those institutions stealthily. When it came to the surface, he was dismissed from the University… That was after the war. Back in 1944 he volunteered to join the army. In his very first engagement with the enemy, he came under artillery fire, was shell-shocked and had to be demobilized with a serious disability. Then he studied at a military school of liaison and communication in Kiev.
On May 9, my brother and I joined the Immortal Regiment procession, carrying a picture of my father wearing military uniform. On that photo he looks so young, like a little kid.
In 1954, after graduation from the Military Institute of Foreign Languages he was assigned to the General Staff. For some time he served in Vienna. Later, he worked a lot on translation programming. He translated many books from Serbian and English. Nusic, Azimov, Bradbury, Shackley and Durrel… That’s what he began with. Then he started authoring literary pieces of his own. His first book was called Translator. Historian. Poet. And his last one, about Vasily Shulgin, was published two years before his death, when he was 86. My dad passed away a year ago, on September 10, 2015. A six-volume collection of his works came out several years ago…
- Do you have some connections with Tolstoy?
- Alexei Konstantinovich Tolstoy, the author of the historical novel, Prince Serebrenni. We are distant relatives, very distant ones.
The female author Natalya Zhukova was his contemporary. In a word, my family certainly has some literary roots…
- How far do they stretch?
- According to an old chronicle once upon a time there lived a Greek named Ivan Samolva. His black hair and swarthy complexion earned him the nickname, Beetle (Zhuk in Russian). The chronicle describes him precisely that way: “… and black was he as a beetle.” That’s how far back my family knows its ancestors…
I recall one very remarkable incident. I had a job in the government then and I led the organizing committee that was making preparations for celebrating the 400th anniversary of the Kalmyk people’s voluntary accession to the Russian Empire. I arrived in the Kalmyk capital of Elista for the festivities and in the company of the then Kalmyk leader, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, we went to the inauguration of a newly-built ethnographical museum. Ilyumzhinov told me, “We’ve got a surprise in store for you.” I was ushered into a hall. An old scroll was retrieved from an exhibition stand. It was unrolled in front of me to read. It was a message from the governor of the city of Astrakhan, Count Potyomkin, who was notifying his superiors of how many ethnic Kalmyks he had managed to recruit into the army to serve Her Majesty the Empress of Russia. At the bottom I saw the signature - Governor Mikhail Mikhailovich Zhukov - a direct relative of mine who lived many generations back!
- Did your parents have any problems in the Soviet era due to their aristocratic roots?
- Fortunately, not. But nobody in those days was in the habit of boasting about one’s family roots on every street corner.
My granddad was in the oil industry, and was the chief engineer at the local oil refinery in the Chechen capital of Grozny. That’s where my father was born. And my granddad’s brother led the Gubkin Institute of Oil and Gas. His wife had graduated from an institute for noble maidens. She was a teacher of English…
- That finger ring on your right hand – is it a family relic?
- It’s a seal with a coat of arms. In the old days, nobles used to wear such rings in order to stamp letters and seal envelopes, thereby verifying them.
- I saw Nikita Mikhalkov wear a ring like that.
- You’ve hit the bull’s eye! It is a gift from Nikita, and its custom made. He ordered it for me when he learned that the original family one has not been saved.
- My granddad used to wear it on his pinky. When he died, there was no way of taking it off.
- What is depicted on the coat of arms?
- A horseshoe and a cross in the middle of it, but the hoof is turned back-to-front. Family legend has it that back in the days of the Tatar-Mongol Yoke, an ancestor of ours, who was a military commander, and his group of armed horsemen, while being chased, resorted to a ruse and re-nailed the horseshoes back-to-front to deceive the enemy. Apparently, it worked, because the horseshoe has been part of the family coat of arms ever since…
- Now back to the beginning. I’m about sports, clean, unadulterated sports. You are not just an active fan but also an athlete yourself, aren’t you?
- Yes, I used to take up three favorite sports – chess, football and hockey. Now I have a fourth favorite pursuit – golf. Whenever I have the chance, I grab a golf club and try to go out to the nearest a golf course.
- This sport is your cup of tea, isn’t it?
- In what sense?
- You turned sixty on June 1. Have you completed your senior citizen pension formalities?
- I have, and everything was done in compliance with the law.
You are quite wrong, if you think that golf is entertainment for senior citizens and retirees. Try spending four hours hiking from hole to hole, and don’t forget there are eighteen of them. This cross-country stroll is ten kilometers long, no less. Also, you have to carry a heavy bag with sticks hanging on your shoulder! You have to be physically fit for it. Golf is one of the healthiest sports of all.
- How long ago have you had a passion for it?
- Five years or so.
- I reckon, it was State Duma Speaker Sergey Naryshkin who lured you into this sport?
- Precisely. He is a great golf enthusiast, too. We often play together.
- How good are you at golf?
- This year, I won a winter golf tournament in men’s pairs in Nakhabino, near Moscow. I keep the Cup at home.
- Maybe, you should’ve applied for the Rio Olympics?
- It’s too late for me to compete for a professional license…
Seriously speaking, it is too bad we’ve failed to train athletes strong enough, capable of competing with the Americans, the English and the South Africans. The struggle for two Olympic vacancies was really fierce. No Russian managed to qualify for the men’s tournament.
- Did you watch the contest?
- On TV. I kept my fingers crossed for Russia’s Maria Verchenova, who on the last day set an Olympic record with 62 strokes and nine under par. If only Maria had been as successful as on the other days, she would’ve surely emerged the champion.
To achieve results in golf, you should have an up-to-date development program for this sport and build better golf courses.
For instance, in China there are thousands of them these days! When China undertakes something, it does it really well and invariably on a large scale. Their fourteen-year-olds are already playing in professional tournaments. I believe that Chinese will soon begin to set the tone. In women’s golf, the Koreans are at the top of world ratings, which is only natural. Create the infrastructures to let more people join the game.
- But golfing gear is quite expensive, isn’t it? How many clubs is each player supposed to have?
- Normally, there are no more than fourteen of them in the bag, but each golfer prefers to have many more.
- How many do you have?
- An awful lot. I’ve never taken the trouble of counting them. My friends know about this new hobby of mine and this makes it far easier for them to think of a gift for me.
Before, I used to get footballs, hockey sticks and chessboards, loads of them! At a one point, I even started giving them away to children’s sports clubs and kept only those bearing champions’ signatures.
- Haven’t you grown indifferent towards football? In the wake of what our national squad “achieved” at the 2016 European Cup Finals?
- At first I’d planned to go to France, but there were too many duties to attend to. I was getting ready for a meeting of the IOC Executive Board. In 2012, I flew to Poland for the first match against the Czech Republic. And in 2008, I saw all matches Russia played in Austria and Switzerland. At the quarterfinal match against the Netherlands, I had a seat next to Prince Willem-Alexander, who now is the King of the Netherlands. Incidentally, he was a member of the IOC, too. His Royal Highness was very happy when the Netherlands scored an equalizer to make the score 1:1 and sent the game into overtime. But once in overtime, Torbinsky and Arshavin both scored once and Russia proceeded to the semi-final…
I’ve seen many historic matches live. I was very late for the Italy-France final of the 2006 World Cup in Berlin, yet I did see Zidane head-butt Materazzi to be dismissed from the pitch.
I also flew to Japan in 2002, when Russia in the decisive group match lost to the hosts 0:1. The next day after the loss a group of Russian legislators played against the Japanese parliament’s team in a friendly match at Tokyo’s Olympic stadium. I don’t have to describe our mood. We literally tore the Japanese team apart by scoring eleven goals to nil with Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori watching it.
- Did you score any goals?
- A few. Too bad the Oleg Romantsev-led team derived no benefits from that.
The State Duma’s team has played many international matches starting from the 1990s. We have an annual inter-parliamentary tournament, ending with a gala match that features the world team. In 2012, we played on Red Square. We won, although some former professional footballers were playing for our rivals - two Poles, one of whom had appeared on the pitch for Madrid’s Atletico, Latvia’s Mikhail Zemlinsky, who led his country’s national team for years, and Vladislav Vashchuk, from Dynamo Kiev…
- Why were they playing against you?
- They had every right to. As members of their countries’ national parliaments…
- There’s no chance of inviting Ukrainians anymore. They won’t come anyway, even if invited.
- I don’t think that this situation will last long. Everything becomes water under the bridge at some point, so this page will be turned, too.
Memories are still fresh of our first visit to Kiev in 1994 for a match against the Verkhovna Rada’s team. In those days, too, relations between our countries were not at their best, to say the least. Kiev’s Republican Stadium was packed to capacity. The then-President Leonid Kravchuk took a seat in the VIP box. In the end, we bagged a 3:1 win. After the referee blew the final whistle, the Ukrainians refused to talk to us, or even shake hands. Half of their team were from the western regions… But at a banquet that same evening, we sang Why am I Not a Falcon and other folk songs in Ukrainian in chorus.
Born November 8, 1959 in Luhansk, Ukraine. In 1982, Andrei Vandenko graduated from the Kiev National University of Taras Shevchenko specializing in journalism. Since 1989, he lives and works in Moscow. Vandenko has more than 20 years of experience in the interview genre. He was published in the major part of top Russian media outlets and is a winner of professional awards.