Russia's women's gymnastics program finally found its groove. Although the women's team did not claim gold, it wrapped up the 2012 Olympic experience with a silver medal in team competition and two of the top three finishers in Thursday's individual all-around final.
Although it could not overcome a seemingly untouchable U.S. squad in team competition, the performances of Aliya Mustafina and Victoria Komova in the all-around showcase confirm that Russia's rebuilding process is nearing completion.
Komova finished second behind American Gabby Douglas, while Mustafina emerged with bronze following a controversial tie-breaking procedure that bumped American Aly Raisman into fourth place.
"I was almost 100 percent sure that I wouldn't get to medal," Mustafina said, according to The Associated Press (h/t yahoo.com).
The 17-year-old spent much of the past year recovering from a torn ACL. She was the all-around winner at the 2010 World Championships and performed phenomenally just 15 months after a significant knee surgery.
Komova, also 17, was brilliant throughout her first Olympic appearance. The 2011 world uneven bars champion and most consistent Russian performer couldn't contain her emotions when Douglas was unveiled as the all-around champion.
She sobbed after falling just shy of her ultimate goal.
"I'm still upset because I could have won gold but I just did not get it," Komova told Reuters. "When I entered the arena, I thought I would win gold."
That was once the mindset of every Olympic gymnast representing Russia.
Russia is in the midst of an unprecedented gold-medal drought in Olympic competition. The country hasn't claimed a team title in women's gymnastics since 1992, when the Unified Team topped China in Barcelona. That was the nation's 10th gold medal in 11 Olympic Games, dating back to 1952.
Since the Soviet Union's downfall brought an end to a surreal run, Russia's women's gymnastics program hasn't been nearly as intimidating. After a victory in 1992, the team has won four medals— three silver and a bronze—but no gold.
Russia was shutout at the 2008 Games in Beijing, when China, the U.S. and Romania placed first, second and third, respectively.
The rivalry between the United States and Russia dates back to the tense days of the Cold War, when every athletic matchup between the countries seemed to be an international battle of its own. The breakup of the Soviet Union set the stage for the emergence of Romania, a nation with two Olympic team titles in women's gymnastics since 2000.
The U.S. and Russian national teams battled for gold at the 2011 World Gymnastics Championships. An American squad featuring four of the five current U.S. Olympians captured top honors, while Russia settled for second place without Mustafina.
Maybe I'm just being idealistic and reminiscing about rivalries forged during the Cold War, but this sport is better when the Russians are a major factor.
The country dominated women's gymnastics for decades of Olympic competition and it's been intent on rebuilding the program since the fall of the Soviet Union.
This 2012 squad was impressive and had the makings of a gold medal caliber group. Unfortunately for Russia (and the rest of the Olympic field for that matter), the U.S. was simply too strong this year.
Perhaps we've seen the rekindling of a rivalry that once owned Olympic headlines. For Russia's storied gymnastics program, that would be a big step in the right direction.