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Clock runs down on remnants of Soviet sports empire Winter Games are beginning of end for Olympic's best


ALBERTVILLE, France -- You can buy a CCCP jacket right off the back of an Olympic athlete. One hundred fifty dollars American.

No problem.

You can buy an athlete's pin, the one with the old hammer-and-sickle on it. A real collector's item. Fifty dollars.

No problem.

You can even buy into a fledgling professional hockey league in the former Soviet Union. All offers considered. Price negotiable.

Definitely, no problem.

This isn't a team, anymore -- it's a going-out-of-business sale.

These are the final days of the Soviet sports machine. The greatest team in Olympic history is bidding a long, not-so-fond farewell at the Winter Olympics.

While the union dissolved, its sports program has remained patched together for one last Olympic waltz. The signs of change -- and deterioration -- are everywhere:

* The hockey team is wearing uniforms that are discolored and


* Some of the figure skaters, who once displayed finely embroidered clothes while performing on ice, are dressed in secondhand outfits.

* The speed skating team arrived late. No explanation given.

* The women's cross country ski team needed hard currency from Western corporations to continue training in the winter.

* Those who do not have corporate support spend a good chunk of their time during news conferences begging for sponsorship.

And then there is the medal count, once the pride and joy of Soviet bureaucrats seeking to spread the Communist gospel. Since 1956, no country has won more Olympic medals. But at these Games the former Soviets are second best, behind Germany, and have only one more medal than Austria.

"We're a country in which the sports are now in a second position," figure skater Viktor Petrenko of Ukraine said after winning the men's gold medal. "I really don't know what is going on in my country. But we're still a team."

For now, what's left of Soviet sports is in chaos, and rules are made on the fly.

Athletes from the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia are competing under their own flags for the first time in more than a half-century.

Meanwhile, the former Soviets are competing under a name given to them by the French -- the Unified Team -- and an anthem and five-ringed flag donated by the International Olympic Committee.

Each time the Olympic flag rises and the anthem is played, the ex-Soviets complain.

Yesterday, after Elena Valbe helped the Unified Team win the gold medal in the women's 4x5-kilometer cross country ski race, she stood at attention during the flag ceremony in Les Saises. But later she said, "I can tell you, I'm Russian, and I will remain Russian whether our flag or our anthem is played."

It's a strange and sad Games for the ex-Soviets. Consider that before the Olympics began, some of the former Soviets sold caviar, Russian dolls and other trinkets at the athletes' village. They simply needed the hard currency to buy food once they got back home.

"You feel sorry for them," American pairs figure skater Rocky Marval said.

Well, maybe not too sorry.

The bureaucrats still know how to throw a good party.

On Thursday night, sports ministers from the 12 republics and three Baltics had dinner at the two-star Hotel Million. They toasted each other as friends. They'll meet again next month in Lausanne, Switzerland, with IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch.

There, they are expected to make final plans for the 1992 Summer Games in Barcelona, Spain. Same Unified Team, but in Spain winning athletes will hear their republics' anthems and see their republics' flags during the medal ceremony. By 1993, the individual republics can begin applying for full IOC membership, ensuring the dismantling of the machine.

The official charged with trying to keep this team together, for now, is Vitaly Smirnov, a man whose resume seems to be changing daily. Once the head of the Soviet Olympic Committee -- an organization that technically no longer exists -- it's now just simpler to call him a vice president of the IOC.

"It is very difficult for us now," Mr. Smirnov said. "People are trying to understand our difficulties and our problems."

One of those problems is that former Soviets are going Western and going professional.

Listen closely, and you can hear the whir of cash registers.

Igor Dmitriev, assistant coach of the hockey team, unveiled plans for a pro league. Twenty teams. Western sponsors. Hard-currency salaries.

"NHL-type salaries, maybe in 15 or 20 years," he said.

Mr. Smirnov talks of the need to pay players, to establish pro leagues, to turn to the West for help.

"If we don't do it within two years, we'll lose all the young athletes," he said.

"If our 18-, 19-, 20-year-old boys leave Russia, there will be no ice hockey or figure skating for the whole country. Pro boxers? Why not? We are changing. Everyone is changing."

In the midst of this chaos, trying to cope with changing rules and mores, the athletes still are managing to perform.

The hockey team fought its way into today's medal round and remains a favorite to win the gold.

Natasha Mishkutienok and Artur Dmitriev won the pairs figure skating, and Marina Klimova and Sergei Ponomarenko won the ice dance last night by defeating the home-country favorites, Isabelle and Paul Duchesnay.

"We'll be up against hard times," said Galina Zmievskaya, Mr. Petrenko's coach.

"Our sport is going to unite us and give us common results. I hope economic problems will not divide us."

But clearly a have and have-not system is developing in the Commonwealth of Independent States. After winning his gold medal, Mr. Petrenko didn't talk of the glory of sport. He talked of turning pro.

"I'm just thinking about myself and what I have to do," he said. "This will be my last year. I want to turn professional, and maybe I can make some money."

Still, Mr. Petrenko said he was saddened during his medal ceremony when he saw the Olympic flag rise to the rafters.

"The Ukraine flag, or the Russian flag, that would be better," he said. "I want to see some flag."

But at least he got to these Games.

The Soviet sports machine, like the country itself, is grinding to a standstill. Back home, in Odessa and Moscow, in St. Petersburg and Minsk, citizens wait in lines for food, enduring a harsh winter of discontent and uncertainty.

"People are watching this on TV in the former Soviet Union," Mr. Smirnov said. "They are tired of the problems. The Olympics are a real show."

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