London 2012: Breaking Down Russia's Top-10 Athletes to Watch in the Olympics
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Russia has traditionally been one of the more competitive countries in the Summer Olympics, even after its former life as the Soviet Union.
Russia has generally dominated sports such as gymnastics, track and field and wrestling. In recent Olympics, however, the nation is clearly not as dominant as it was during its time as the USSR.
But Russia is still a force to be reckoned with. The country finished third in the gold medal count in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, finishing behind the United States and China.
Here are the top 10 Russian athletes to watch as London 2012 grows closer every day.
Spoiler alert: Ivan Drago (the Russian boxer from Rocky IV) did not make the list.
10. Ivan Ukhov, Track and Field
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Event: High Jump
At the age of 19, Ukhov set the Russian high jump record. Then, his career took a nosedive after the 2008 Grand Prix in Lausanne, Switzerland.
Allegedly, Ukhov was drunk while performing the high jump at the meet. Don't believe me? Take a look. You be the judge.
Ukhov is ready to put that incident behind him and achieve his dream of Olympic stardom. He is on the track for a terrific comeback story, but his own character flaws and mental lapses may still get in the way.
Ukhov may be worth watching for his talent, but he is even more worth watching to see if he continues to lash out at his coaches and teammates on the track.
9. Andrei Kirilenko, Basketball
Kirilenko played for the Utah Jazz for 10 years, but he returned to play for CSKA Moscow for the entire 2011-12 season as the NBA sorted out its lockout situation. Now, Kirilenko has a chance to lead his home country to the 2012 Summer Olympics.
Russia still has not qualified for London, but it has one more shot in a pre-qualifying tournament in Venezuela. Out of the 12 teams competing, three will earn bids to the Olympics.
Kirilenko, 31, averaged 12.4 points, 5.6 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game during his career with the Jazz. He will be Russia's most dynamic player in the Olympics—if the team makes it that far.
8. Viktoria Komova, Gymnastics
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When Russia was known as the Soviet Union, it had a dynasty in Olympic gymnastics. It seemed as if the Soviet team captured the gold medal in nearly every Olympics. But since the communist government was dismantled, Russia has struggled to get back on its feet in gymnastics.
Enter Viktoria Komova.
Komova may be Russia's best chance at winning a gold medal, even if she is a huge underdog compared to the American and Chinese gymnasts. Check out her performance at the 2012 European Championships in Brussels.
With some hiccups by the American and Chinese gymnasts, Komova could sneak into the gold medal conversation.
7. Becky Hammon, Women's Basketball
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Stick an asterisk next to this one.
The Russian women's basketball team will be led by an American in the 2012 London games. Hammon, who was the WNBA runner-up for MVP in 2007, obtained her Russian citizenship in 2008 and will compete for Russia for the second-straight Summer Olympics. She wanted the chance to compete in the Olympics after the U.S. passed on her for the 2008 games.
Hammon signed a contract to play for CSKA Moscow in 2008, and under FIBA rules, she had the right to obtain a Russian passport and become a naturalized Russian citizen because she had never before appeared in a FIBA event.
Hopefully, the U.S. won't regret not pursuing the South Dakota native for its own squad.
6. Yevgeny Korotyshkin, Swimming
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The captain of the Russian swimming team is also the country's best chance at winning a medal in London. Korotyshkin is the world-record holder in the 100-meter butterfly.
Korotyshkin has held six different world records in his career. He qualified for the Russian Olympic squad at the nation's qualifying races in April. Here's what he said after he edged out some close competition in Moscow (via RT.com):
You know from the start I was preparing for the Olympics. I wasn’t expecting to face such strong competition. My aim was to achieve a qualification time and I’m happy I did that as well as winning the event. It was also a psychological victory for me.
Korotyshkin may pose as a threat to Michael Phelps and the rest of the American swimmers.
5. Mariya Savinova, Track and Field
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Event: 800 meters
Savinova exploded onto the track and field scene with her performance at the 2010 European Championships in Barcelona, where she won the gold medal in the 800 with a time of 1:58.22.
Savinova is arguably the favorite to win the gold medal in the 800 in London. At the 2011 IAAF World Championships in South Korea, she ran a personal-best 1:55.87 to win the title and solidify her reputation as the world's best 800 runner in women's track and field.
The 2012 London games will be Savinova's first Olympic appearance.
4. Lyukman Adams, Track and Field
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Event: Triple Jump
The Russian track and field team is entering new territory with the addition of Adams to its Olympic squad, because Adams is the first-ever dark-skinned member in Russian track and field history.
Adams earned the bronze medal in the triple jump at the 2012 IAAF World Indoor Championships in Istanbul to obtain a spot on the Russian Olympic team. He is now one of the favorites in the event heading into London.
Adams is 100 percent Russian, as he was born in St. Petersburg to a father of Nigerian descent.
3. Ekaterina Gamova, Volleyball
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Gamova helped lead the Russian volleyball team to the silver medal in both the Athens games in 2004 and the Beijing games in 2008. In what will likely be her final Olympic appearance, Gamova has her sights set on the gold in London.
In Athens, Gamova was the top scorer in the Olympics. Russia won the world championships in 2010, and Gamova was named the MVP of the tournament.
So, why is Gamova so dominant and why should you watch her play in London? She towers her competition at 6'7".
Maybe NBA scouts will be paying attention in London, too.
2. Artur Beterbiev, Boxing
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Beterbiev will look to win a medal at the London games after a disappointing performance in the 2008 Beijing games.
Beterbiev, who won the silver medal at the 2007 World Championships, is arguably the favorite for the gold in the light heavyweight division. He was a solid bet to win in 2008, but even with the upsetting performance, Beterbiev's career has peaked in recent years.
He won the 2009 World Amateur Championships and back-to-back European titles in '09 and '10. The International Boxing Association selected Beterbiev as the best amateur boxer of 2010 after he won his second European championship.
1. Yelena Isinbayeva, Track and Field
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Event: Pole Vault
Isinbayeva is perhaps Russia's most decorated track and field athlete. She won the gold medal in the pole vault in both the 2004 and 2008 Olympics, and she is a five-time world champion.
Isinbayeva holds the world record in both indoor (5.01 meters, 2012) and outdoor (5.06 meters, 2009) pole vaulting. After taking a year off in 2010, Isinbayeva has regained her focus and has aspirations of a third gold medal in London.
Isinbayeva's world-record-setting performance in February at an indoor event in Stockholm put to rest any doubt that she is not near the form she was in before her sabbatical in 2010.
Now, arguably the greatest women's pole vaulter of all-time is on the cusp of making Olympic history.