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Russian medals a sure bet in rhythmic gymnastics

June 21, 2015

BAKU, Azerbaijan (AP) — Even with more than a year to go until the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, it’s easy to predict who’ll win gold in rhythmic gymnastics.

A sport big on sequins and smiles, in which high school-age girls perform elaborate routines set to music, using ribbons, balls and hoops as apparatus, rhythmic gymnastics has for years been dominated by Russia.

Every Olympic rhythmic gymnastics gold medal since 2000 has been won by Russia and next year’s appear set to go the same way after this week’s European Games saw the Russian team dominate once again, winning seven of eight gold medals, including victories in all the Olympic disciplines.

“Russia always expects the very highest result,” said 17-year-old Yana Kudryavtseva, who left with four gold medals. “Obviously, I’m crazily happy.”

The scale of Russia’s control of rhythmic gymnastics is staggering, even by the standards of a country used to winning many gymnastics titles in the days of the Soviet Union. The U.S., by contrast, was 21st in the individual rhythmic gymnastics event at the 2012 Olympics, and did not compete in 2008.

The one time the Russians faltered at this week’s European Games, the winning Belarusian team could barely believe their luck.

“I think we still haven’t realized we won,” said Belarus’ Alexandra Narkevich after the medal ceremony.

Kudryavtseva’s main rival at the European Games was her own teammate, Margarita Mamun. The two were so far ahead of the rest that they came first and second in qualifying for all four individual events. Unfortunately for Mamun, a limit of one athlete per country in the finals meant she had to sit out three events in which she would otherwise have been a serious medal contender.

“It’s upsetting that I competed successfully, but that’s the rules,” she said.

Success in rhythmic gymnastics can make a Russian girl into a national celebrity, and sometimes even launch a political career. Former Olympic champion Alina Kabaeva was just 24 when she became a member of parliament for the ruling United Russia party in 2007, three months after winning her final world championship gold medal.

In a sport which prizes youthful agility, it is not uncommon to retire at the age of 22, as Russia’s reigning Olympic champion Evgenia Kanaeva did in 2012. That means it is crucial for Russia to constantly develop young talent to maintain its dominance. Longtime head coach Irina Viner - “the secret” behind Russia’s success, according to Mamun - has operated a production line of champions for the last two decades, replacing each departed star with another from the same mould, from Kabaeva to Kanaeva to Kudryavtseva.

In a state-run setup inherited from the Soviet Union, promising future gymnasts live at the national training center near Moscow through their teenage years, spending more time with coaches than with their own families.

Kudryavtseva says her coaches have become “second mothers” during her years in the national training center.

“I spent most of my time with them. I’m usually with my parents at the weekend, but I’m with (my coaches) almost every day,” she said.

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