Vladimir Putin: Is this one sporting contest he can't win?

Story highlights

  • Russia aimed for Olympic rugby places
  • Men miss out, women also fall at last hurdle
  • Russian sport has endured a difficult year
  • Rugby is growing in popularity in Russia

(CNN)Russia's sporting reputation may have been dragged through the mud over the past year -- but its plucky performances in a sport in which it has little tradition have won plaudits.

Russia won 24 gold medals at London 2012, but it will be hard pressed to replicate its success if as seems now likely its athletes will be excluded from Rio 2016.
    However, there's one sport outside the more traditional Russian strongholds where it looked to spring a surprise -- rugby sevens.
    According to Masha Anderson, general manager of its women's team, this is a plan which has been 15 years in the making and accelerated by government investment after the sport was confirmed for its Olympic debut in 2009.
    "As soon as sevens joined the Olympic family, the ministry of sports started to support the team," Anderson told CNN.
    "Girls now have the opportunity to run training camps in Olympic centers, they have three people on the medical staff, an analyst and a strength and conditioning coach.
    "They have everything a normal team should have and it wasn't a gift -- it was deserved because of the success in Europe and becoming a core team in the World Series."

    Putin's plan

    Russian president Vladmir Putin has already ensured his country will host the football World Cup in 2018 -- four years after the Winter Olympics took over the Black Sea resort of Sochi, which had a $50 billion makeover.
    Putin, who enjoys a range of sports from horse riding through to martial arts, has championed the nation's sporting ideals as a way of expressing Russia's world standing. It's what analysts call "soft power."
    The rugby players have been given full use of the facilities at the world-class training center in Sochi, which is used by several different national teams and athletes.
    That investment was plain to see in the opening round of the 2015-16 Women's Sevens World Series in Dubai.
    Russia made it to the final after defeating New Zealand, France, Brazil, Spain and England, before losing out to Australia 31-12.
    The success of the Russian women did not go unnoticed, nor did the contribution of Nadezda Kudinova -- one of the team's chief protagonists.
    Born in Aksay, a small town in the Rostov region, she grew up climbing trees, jumping off garage roofs. When not seeking a similar level of adrenaline, she'd dabbled with soccer.
    But it was her background in handball which enabled the transition to rugby.
    After her handball team folded, she was persuaded by her coach and parents to move into rugby at the age of 16 -- and the rest is history.
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    "Handball gave me a lot," Kudinova told CNN. "It's a contact game and has that in common with rugby. For me it was easy to start playing rugby unlike some of the other girls who came into it from other sports.
    "When my handball team folded, I wanted to finish my sporting career but one of the rugby coaches offered me the opportunity to try the game."
    Since then Kudinova has not looked back, quickly asserting herself as one of the country's standout stars.
    She was an integral part of the team which finished seventh in the world series, being the team's second-highest points scorer behind Elena Zdrokova -- who ran in 14 tries in the five tournament rounds.

    Catalyst

    Qualification for the Olympics would have provided a further boost for Russian rugby.
    But ultimately it ended in glorious failure with the women's team agonizingly falling at the final hurdle -- a 16-nation repechage tournament in Dublin.
    Russia ended the hopes of the Irish host but in the final playoff slipped to a 19-12 defeat to Spain, which will be going to Rio, so near but so far.
    Russia's men also fell short in their final chance to qualify in Monaco, finishing third overall -- beating surprise team German in the playoff after losing to eventual victor Spain in the semifinals.
    It was another disappointment for the men, who were seeking to atone for the failure of Russia's XVs side to earn a place at last year's Rugby World Cup in England.
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    "Rugby is not a big sport in Russia," Kudinova said. "But at the moment there are teams appearing all over the country and people are trying to make big rugby festivals.
    "Rugby is played in schools, colleges, universities and I think if this trend continues then we could become one of the biggest rugby nations.
    "I hope that one day the World Cup will come to Russia and that would be a real party. I went to the final at Twickenham last year and that was incredible -- it was a kind of rugby fairytale."

    Vastness

    Kingsley Jones, who coached Russia's men's XVs team between 2011-14, sees far larger challenges ahead for the sport if it is to become mainstream in Russia, which has a population of 143 million.
    While there has been some progress with clubs such as Enisei-STM from Siberia competing in the European Challenge Cup and winning games against French and English opposition, Jones says the sheer vastness of the country makes it expensive to stage national competitions.
    Russian fans attend the 2011 Rugby World Cup match against Australia.
    "With the huge population in Russia there's a massive potential for rugby, but the sport needs more coverage," Jones, now coaching in his native Wales, told CNN.
    "The Olympics is fantastic for rugby in general but also for the game in Russia.
    "They try their best to run a professional game but it's hard in such a big country. A massive amount of budget goes on travel with teams in Siberia, Krasnodar and Moscow.
    "The sheer amount of traveling is exhausting. There can be six-hour flights to get to an away game, and that's where the money goes."

    Stagnation

    One of those frustrated by the lack of progress in Russian rugby is Vasiliy Artemyev, one of the standout players of the men's national XVs team.
    Artemyev, who has played professionally in England, is back in Russia with 2015 national champion RC Krasniy Yar.
    He was part of the team which qualified for the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand but was unable to repeat the feat four years later.
    Vasily Artemyev is one of Russia's best known rugby players.
    "The professional game in Russia is currently in a kind of stagnation," Artemyev, who played in England with Northampton for two years between 2011-2013, told CNN.
    "There are three or four leading clubs with the biggest budgets which are way above the rest, and several lesser ones battling with each other at the lower half of the table every year.
    "This is obviously not an ideal situation for the promotion of growth of the league's and clubs' levels.
    "Rugby sevens on the other hand has become another driving factor for the promotion of the game. There is a certain interest to the sport from the government as it has recently become an Olympic sport. It opens a new angle for the development of the game in Russia."

    The future

    Russia's women were the highest-ranked team unable to book a place in Rio and it's a disappointment which will take some time to get over.
    "It's not a secret that I've been dreaming about the Olympics for a long time," Kudinova says.
    "I've been dreaming about going there to play and win a medal since 2009 and we'll try and do our best there."
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