Not long ago, Russia’s once-heralded biathlon program was in tatters. The team was plagued with doping violations. It was losing big competitions to countries it expected to beat, like Belarus and Kazakhstan. A top biathlon official was convicted of trying to arrange the murder of a local governor.
What a difference an oligarch makes.
Out of all the titles Mikhail D. Prokhorov juggles — Brooklyn Nets owner, billionaire playboy, Russian presidential candidate — perhaps the most unlikely is this: biathlon federation president.
Russia’s biathlon team used to be among the most fearsome in the world — the men’s relay held a lock on the Olympic gold medal from 1968 to 1988 — but the program turned ragged in recent years. Enter Prokhorov.
He took the helm of the biathlon federation in 2008, a year after Sochi, Russia, was selected to host the Games, and has showered the team with money — just as he has in Brooklyn with the Nets. He has turned the program into a gold-plated machine in hopes of re-establishing Russian dominance when the Olympics open next month.
Prokhorov is paying for the biathlon team to travel to Sochi on three private jets, said Sergei Kushchenko, a top biathlon official and a longtime Prokhorov deputy. Prokhorov has recently given “personal bonuses” to biathlon athletes, coaches and managers, he added, though he declined to describe the size of the gifts.
Under Prokhorov, the team has hired one of the world’s best-known coaches from Germany, along with battalions of staff. Road accommodations have improved a notch or several.
“For Prokhorov, it is very important to allow his sportsmen, those guys on the international team, to think and focus only on the training and the competition and not think about the beds or something,” Kushchenko said.
Prokhorov is one of several high-powered Russian executives — often called oligarchs — to assume a measure of responsibility for a winter sport in anticipation of Sochi. The tycoons have brought their connections, expertise, and, most important, unfathomably deep pockets to once obscure athletic organizations, altering the international competitive landscape.
Andrei Bokarev, a coal mining billionaire, is the president of the freestyle skiing federation. Alexei Kravstov, the chief executive of Kraftway, one of the country’s biggest information technology companies, is the president of the skating organization. Vagit Alekperov, the president of Lukoil, a leading Russian oil company, has made his company a top sponsor of the cross-country ski team.
Did they volunteer for Olympic service, or were they enlisted? As always, the relationships between the Kremlin and the business world are murky at best, and political analysts can only speculate on precisely how the billionaires ended up working with the sports federations.
Kushchenko put it like this: “In our country everybody wants to win, and that is why it was decided that the best executives in the country would run some sports organizations. A lot of executives from the business side now joined and head most of the federations.”
The executives’ involvement signals just how important the games are to President Vladimir Putin, who has spent years, and tens of billions of dollars in government funds, to burnish Russia’s international standing with a good showing at the Olympics.
The biathlon, which combines cross-country skiing with sharpshooting, could be seen as a case study for Russia’s Olympic ambitions. After decades of dominance, the team’s reputation was tainted by doping scandals and the 2007 criminal conviction of Alexander Tikhonov, a former Olympic great who was Prokhorov’s predecessor at the biathlon federation.
(Tikhonov, who denies charges that he hired his brother to kill a local official, was sentenced to three years in prison but was immediately released under an amnesty law.)
It was during that nadir that Prokhorov, who made his fortune in nickel mining, became the president of the Russian Biathlon Union. At 6 feet 8 inches, Prokhorov has a well-known passion for basketball and heli-skiing, but Kushchenko could not say whether his boss had any previous experience with the biathlon. (He did point out, jokingly, that both basketball and biathlon start with the letter B.)
He said Prokhorov, who declined to be interviewed for this article, was motivated by patriotism: “National pride comes first.”
Russia’s newly flush team has been closely watched on the biathlon circuit, drawing envy and resentment.
Norway, Germany and France have strong biathlon programs, but none has resources to match Russia. Kushchenko would not put a number on the biathlon team’s budget but said it combined financing from the government and Prokhorov.
In the United States, biathlon ranks somewhere below an afterthought. Tim Burke, perhaps the best U.S. biathlete in a generation, does not exactly have to worry about the paparazzi.
Although U.S. Olympic sports do receive some financing through corporate sponsorships, U.S. athletes look at Russia’s glittering resources and sigh.
“The Russians travel with an enormous team, more coaches and staff than athletes,” Burke said. “They fly a lot in their private jets from World Cup to World Cup.”
The U.S. biathlon budget does not allow for luxury air travel — it’s about $1.6 million for the Olympics, said Max Cobb, the president of U.S. Biathlon. “I suspect that the Russian budget is probably 10 times that amount,” he said.
He added: “It’s definitely daunting. They’re exceptionally well provided for.”
By comparison, U.S. Biathlon is a threadbare organization. The office manager works half the week. An accountant works six hours a week. The group can afford a third employee only because of an outside grant.
“We’re all stretched to the limit,” Cobb said. “I’m pretty sure we’re the leanest staff of any Olympic sport that has a reasonable chance of winning a medal.”
When Cobb surveys the biathlon world, one extremely tall Russian stands out.
“Prokhorov has totally changed it,” he said. The Russians “were well-funded before,” he added.
“Now they’re well-funded times two.”
It’s not just the Americans who have noticed. Martin Fourcade of France, the top-ranked biathlete, who is expected to dominate in Sochi, said it was impossible to ignore.
“The financial resources of the Russian team are huge,” he said in an interview. He ticked off their advantages — premier travel accommodations, exercise bikes on the road, large coaching staffs.
“It’s a lot of good details, but nothing can make them win for sure,” he said.
One of Prokhorov’s biggest challenges was to clean up the federation after a series of doping scandals. In 2009, three Russian biathletes were suspended after testing positive for a blood-boosting hormone. Cracking down on doping was a major priority, Kushchenko said, and international officials have applauded Russia’s efforts.
Prokhorov “has taken the problems with doping in Russian biathlon very seriously,” said Anders Besseberg, the president of the International Biathlon Union.
In Brooklyn, Prokhorov has been criticized for being an absentee owner of the Nets, but he seems to have taken to the role of biathlon cheerleader.
“Bravo, bravo, and once again bravo,” he wrote on his personal blog this month after the Russian women won a World Cup competition in Germany. The showing offered “hope for future Russian victories, and not only in sports.”
For all the huzzahs, Prokhorov knows that he will be judged ultimately by one measure: Olympic gold medals. He has said that he will resign if the Russian team does not win at least two in Sochi.
The Russians have a competitive team, but gold is not a sure bet. Of the top 15 ranked international male biathletes, four are Russian; of the top 15 women, only two are Russian. As for the Russian athletes themselves, they seem to have enjoyed the Prokhorov era.
“With the arrival of the new leadership, we were able to relax a little and not worry how we were going to make it tomorrow to one or another location or what we would eat during the world championships and the Olympic games,” Maxim Chudov, then the team captain, said in an interview in 2010.
Prokhorov and his managers think they have done their part. Now it’s up to the biathletes.
“The Russian national team got all the best equipment and all the best funding to perform best,” Kushchenko said. “We’ll see how it works.”