First of all, forget football. If you want to have a nice conversation about sport in Russia, remember there are lots of different disciplines that Russian people like and practice, more than football.
Ice Hockey, figure skating, artistic gymnastics, basketball, volleyball and bandy are the “zvesdy” (stars) of Russian sport. And so are their most important athletes.
Ice hockey is very popular because Russia is cold. Sounds funny, doesn't it? But with lots of frozen lakes and ice skating tracks, a huge number of young people start skiing and then ask to join an ice skating team.
The Russian national hockey team has always dominated the World Championship, which is held by International Ice Hockey Federation, and has also medalled several times in the Winter Olympics. That includes the last one at the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang (even if the team was called “Olympic Russian Athletes" after doping scandals).
The Russian ice hockey team at 2017 World Championships
Many Russian players are in NHL teams in the US and Canada, including Aleksandr Ovečkin, Evgenij Malkin, Nikita Zaitsev and Evgenii Dadonov.
Russia is also known for its gymnastics, both male and female. The Soviet Union holds the record for the most Olympics medals won in the sport. Also, Russia holds the record for the most medals in rhythmic gymnastics.
Some of the most famous Russian gymnasts are Svetlana Khorkina, who participated in four Olympics, Anna Pavlova, Larisa Latynina, Nikolai Andrianov, and Dmitry Vladimrovich Bilorzerchev, who still holds the record for being the youngest male world champion in history.
Talking about artistic gymnastics, the old USSR even dominated most major events. The whole world knew the name of Larissa Latynina, who won a record of 18 Olympic medals, half of which were gold.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many athletes went abroad for political reasons. However, a new generation that was eager to win grew up in the 90's and now the future stars are shining again.
In 2012, Aliya Mustafina won the Olympic gold in the uneven bars. Other medals came from Dar'ja Spiridonova, Evgenija Šelgunova and Marija Charenkova.
Let’s get back to ice with figure skating. Just a single statistic provides all you need to know: In over 42 years, from 1964 to 2006, Olympic gold in pairs figure skating was only won by athletes from the Soviet Union, and then from Russia.
In 2010, this series of victories was broken for the first time by the pair of Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo from China, but at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia again won the gold. In Pyeongchang, finally, Alina Zagitova won the gold and Evgenija Medvedeva the silver in the individual event.
Impeccable technique and the class of the athletes, these are the distinctive features of figure skating in “Russian-style”. Teaming up with famous coaches like Tatiana Tarasova, Tamara Moskvina, Alexey Mishin and Elena Tchaikovskaya - who have all trained more than one Olympic champion - all the ingredients for success is there.
Another very popular sport in St. Petersburg and Moscow is tennis, and it is becoming more popular all around the country. Have you ever heard about Maria Sharapova, Dinara Safina, Marat Safin or Nikolaj Davydenko?
Sharapova was ranked number one in the WTA and she is still among the best. She is also a model, a stylist and entrepreneur.
The Safin brothers, Marat and Dinara, were two child prodigies of international tennis. Now both of them are retired, working as tennis coaches in Russia and the United States.
Davydenko won over 20 single ATP titles, and in addition, there are many other outstanding tennis players, such as Elena Dementieva and Vera Zvonareva.
The list of popular sports goes on with basketball and volleyball. Starting from the Soviet era till now, male basketball teams and both male - female volleyball national teams reached the Olympic podium several times.
Male basketball teams like CSKA Moscow or Unicks Kazan show some of the best players coming from Europe and the USA. They have collected a lot of trophies in their history. CSKA Moscow are three times Euroleague champions, seven times Russian VTN national league winners.
CSKA Moscow is also a female and male volleyball club, but the real stars of the last championships are the Zenit Kazan squads that just won the Champions League in their home town.
Nando de Colo takes a shot for CSKA Moscow
Bandy is last, but not least, on this list. It’s a traditional Russian sport, often called Russian hockey. Although the modern rules were written in England, Russians claim to have invented the game (and maybe they are right).
Just like hockey, bandy is a team winter sport played on ice. The skaters use sticks to direct a ball into the opposing team’s goal. Both men and women play in a court like the football one, and the Russian women’s team won silver in the six first World Championships of this. They finally won gold in 2014.
Russia is not the only one place where you can follow and play bandy. Finland and Norway are also good spots if you want to start playing.
Words: Cecilia Mussi