(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.
The participation of the nation’s track and field athletes at August’s Games remains in doubt following allegations of state-sponsored doping, while its top tennis player Maria Sharapova has been banned for two years after failing a drugs test at the Australian Open.
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.”
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.
“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.
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.
Read more: http://www.cnn.com/2016/06/17/sport/rugby-sevens-olympics-russia-putin/index.html