Blood and Sweat at a Russian Sports School

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Behind the scenes at a Russian Olympic sports school

Wrestling for success

Start Quote

Young wrestler takes a break

At first it was just something to do after school. When I started doing well I wanted to make it my career”

End Quote Alen, 15 Special School of the Olympic Reserve, Ekatarinburg, Russia

Russian teenager Alen studies at the Olympic Reserve School in Ekaterinburg. At 15, Alen is one of their youngest students.

He has been wrestling since he was seven and wants to make it to the Olympics.

The regime is intense and he trains five days a week.

He's already a regional champion in Greco-Roman wrestling.

It's a popular sport in Russia and at London 2012 it will be the only Olympic sport that women don't compete in. It relies on strength - wrestlers grapple with their arms and upper body and can't take an opponent down by attacking his legs.

Russia is one of the world's top wrestling nations and their team won six Olympic golds in Beijing. There are high hopes for the Russian team at the next Olympics.

Alen's determined to reach the top and has his next steps planned: "I want to win the next regional championships, go on to national competitions and then join the junior national team."

Training is seriously competitive. But when the whistle blows, Alen and his sparring partner are friends again.


Russians at the summer Olympics

  • Early days: Russia is 12th and 16th in London (1908) and Paris (1916)
  • Russia joins the Soviet Union in 1922. The USSR takes part at a summer Olympics for the first time at the Helsinki (1952) and comes 2nd
  • Golden era: USSR tops the medals table at the summer Olympics in Melbourne (1956), Rome (1960), Munich (1972), Montreal (1976), Moscow (1980) and Seoul (1988)
  • The Soviet era ends in 1990-1 and Russia competes with other former Soviet nations for The Unified Team in Barcelona (1992); they come first
  • Russia is second in Atlanta (1996) and Sydney (2000)
  • In Athens (2004) and Beijing (2008), Russia wins 3rd place

For most of the 20th century Russia was at the heart of the Soviet Union or USSR. It was a Communist superpower.

It was a very different system to the rest of Europe and the USA.

Topping the Olympic medals table was one way that the USSR showed the rest of the world how powerful it was.

There was a constant struggle, with the USSR squaring up against the USA for top spot on the medals table.

The Soviet Union pioneered talent spotting and training athletes from a young age.

Hundreds of sports boarding schools like this one in Ekaterinburg were set up.

Russia's Olympic schools

The school's Olympic flag The Special School of the Olympic Reserve opened in 1971

In the 40 years since Ekaterinburg's Olympic school opened, pupils have gone on to win 74 Olympic medals.

In the 1990s the Soviet Union collapsed which meant huge changes. Many sports schools closed and the medal count dropped.

Today, staff at Alen's school want a revival of the old sports school system where children enrolled as young as aged seven.

"Sports schools need to get children from a much younger age," says the school's diving coach, Anatoly, "at the moment they enrol in their mid-teens."

Anatoly remembers the Soviet era when there were boarding schools for children from year 5. A model which he says their eastern neighbours, the Chinese, have adopted.

Time to be a teenager?

Start Quote

Diver in her school uniform

I've never had any doubts or regrets - I've got so many friends around the world and it's great fun”

End Quote Genia, 16 Diver

One of the school's 2012 hopefuls started swimming before she could walk. Sixteen years later, Genia is a European junior diving champion.

Genia says she can't even remember starting to dive: "When I was eight months old my parents took me to the pool and when I was three I started to dive."

Genia puts in long hours. As well pool practice there is strength and flexibility training. She trains twice a day six or seven days a week and has school work to fit in too.

She has her sights set on the London Olympics: "My dream is to get to the Olympics next year - I'm doing everything I can to get into the national team."

For Genia, the sacrifice is worthwhile. "I was very rebellious when I was younger," she explains, "but now I understand my parents' point of view and that they are just thinking of my career. And they don't always tell me no - I get free time at the weekends."

Boarding school

Russian teacher smiling

Start Quote

Olympic schools need lots of financial support”

End Quote Tatiana Mishkel Teacher, Special School of the Olympic Reserve, Ekatarinburg

After training, Genia heads home but as Alen's family live outside the city it's back to the school boarding house.

Alen shares a small room with another student. He has only been living at the school for a few weeks, but he says he's settled in well.

Students don't pay to attend the school but the running costs are high.

Training takes plenty of energy and the pupils are provided with six meals a day. Add to that the costs of top class coaching.

"Only with decent conditions to live and study can we train world class athletes," says teacher Tatjana Mishkel. "We have renovated the classroom block but we need to improve the boarding houses."

Looking ahead

Russian sport has grappled with some tough times but the school is optimistic about the future. Sports schools that take children from seven are being trialled and already proving successful. Coaches and teachers think this change will make a big difference to the medal tally in the future.

At 15, Alen's got a way to go til he reaches his fighting peak. If he stays on track he could be representing Russia in the not too distant future.

With European titles already under her belt and qualification for the national team a real possibility, Genia is hoping to make a splash at London 2012.

Schools World Service is a BBC British Council co-production

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