Maria Iovleva, 20, seen training in her native Komi republic, won a silver in sitting biathlon during the ongoing Winter Paralympic Games in Vancouver.
As Russia recovers from its worst-ever Winter Olympics, it's getting a welcome boost from unlikely quarters.
Five days into the Winter Paralympic Games in Vancouver, Russia's team has already left its rivals — and the Russian Olympic team — in the dust with six gold medals, six silvers and three bronzes.
This is in sharp contrast with the grim results of the Vancouver games in February when Russia snagged only three golds among a total of 15, placing a lowly 11th on the medals table. The poor showing cost Russia's top Olympics official his job and sparked a government furor over the use of record funds earmarked on Olympics training.
The irony in the disabled athletes' success is that they receive little money for training and are among the most marginalized members of a society where public facilities for the disabled are a rarity.
“You must understand that we are not comparing ourselves with the regular Olympic team, but that won't stop me from taking a jab at them because we won as many gold medals in just one day of the Paralympics as they won in two weeks," said a triumphant Vladimir Lukin, president of the Russian Paralympic Committee, the Ves Sport news agency reported.
The Olympics team had planned to win seven golds, while the Paralympic team went into the competition without any medal plans, Paralympic Committee chairman Pavel Rozhkov said.
While the rules are generally more relaxed at the Paralympics, which end Sunday, Russian athletes face tougher challenges than those from countries where the disabled enjoy nearly all the same benefits as regular people, said Alexander Porshnev, coach of 20-year-old athlete Maria Iovleva, who won a silver in sitting biathlon on Saturday.
“This competition for her is like a window to the world," Porshnev told The Moscow Times by telephone from the Komi republic, where he and Iovleva live. "There she can communicate with people and prove her abilities and not to sit in a room alone."
Iovleva is deaf, barely able to speak and is paralyzed from the waist down. After winning the silver Saturday, she had some bad luck at cross-country sit-skiing the next day. Her hands thrown up, smiling and confident about winning the race, she mistakenly headed for the finish line without making one last lap, unaware of the calls from coaches or the roar from the stands. Even though she had to go back and finish the distance, she still placed eighth out of 11 athletes.
For Iovleva, the silver medal and a cash reward that she will receive for it back in Russia might make her daily life easier. She lives in a single room with 12 other young women in a home for the disabled in Syktyvkar, capital of the Komi republic, and dreams of owning an apartment, Porshnev said.
The government awards 100,000 euros ($137,000) to gold medalists, 60,000 euros for silver and 40,000 euros for bronze, the same amount as Olympic medalists receive. The prize money was increased fivefold after the Winter Paralympic Games in Turin in 2006 when the Russian team won 13 golds, 13 silvers and seven bronzes, its best-ever result in the Winter Games since it started to participate in 1988.
The money has proved to be a strong motivation for disabled athletes to train hard, said Oleg Smolin, vice president of the Russian Paralympic Committee.
“People with disabilities are not used to state attention, so they are very responsive when they get it,” Smolin, who is also a State Duma deputy, said by telephone from Vancouver.
Smolin said Russia's athletes excelled in the biathlon and cross-country skiing but trailed their European rivals in mountain skiing and sledge hockey. The problem, he said, is a lack of proper training facilities and coaches. To train athletes for those events, the Paralympic Committee has been taking them to Finland, he said.
“After the victory in Turin in 2006, the authorities turned their attention to disabled people, but it was only temporary," he said. "We can't expect any radical changes soon."
Coach Porshnev said regional authorities would not help Iovleva train for the next Paralympic Games in Sochi in 2014, despite her silver medal and desire to compete. “Our bureaucrats are not really impressed by anything," he said.
It took a money-raising campaign in a local newspaper to help Iovleva acquire her current wheelchair in 2007. Porshnev said he had assembled her previous wheelchair by himself and had also covered most of the cost of her $4,000 German-made rifle used for the biathlon.
Disabled athletes are able to attract some sponsors, usually private individuals whose contributions make about up half of the budgets of sports organizations for the disabled, said Lyudmila Bogdanova, head of the Federation of Disabled People Sports in the Moscow region.
Many people with disabilities face a daily struggle trying to access public places and to use public transportation. One of the main problems — even at the site of the next Paralympic Games in Sochi — is a lack of wheelchair-assessable ramps, said Pavel Zhestovsky, head of the Sochi branch of the All-Russia Disabled People Society, a public group.
“Many of the existing wheelchair ramps are made just for the sake of appearance — they are too steep," he said. "Construction workers should have tried to use them by sitting in wheelchairs themselves.”