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Sports Minister Ready to Quit Over Olympics

Vitaly Mutko, front, and Russian gold-medal winner Nikita Kryukov arriving at Sheremetyevo Airport on Tuesday. Denis Sinyakov

Sports minister Vitaly Mutkov said Tuesday that he was ready to step down, becoming the first top official to react to President Dmitry Medvedev's call for resignations after the country's lackluster showing at the Vancouver Winter Olympics.

"I will resign peacefully if this was directed at me," Mutko said as he arrived at Sheremetyevo Airport from Vancouver, Interfax reported.

Medvedev said Monday that "fat cat" sports bureaucrats should quit or be fired because of the Vancouver fiasco. Russia, which will host the next Winter Games in Sochi in 2014, finished in 11th place with only three gold medals — its worst-ever Olympics performance.

But Mutko was quick to question the logic of his resignation. "I don't know whether sports would score a victory because of that," he said.

The minister also argued that his Sports, Tourism and Youth Policy Ministry could not be blamed because it was too young. “The sports ministry was formed a year and a half ago and has really only been working for a year,” he said in televised comments.

Mutko and Russian Olympic Committee head Leonid Tyagachyov are close allies of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, and neither announced Tuesday that he had resigned.

Putin has not commented on the Olympic performance since saying last week that the country needed to learn a lesson from Vancouver.

Mutko said later Tuesday that he would make a decision only after talks with the country's leadership, said Sergei Udaltsov, leader of the Left Front youth group.

Udaltsov was invited by the minister for talks after about 50 activists from his group picketed the ministry and demanded his resignation.

The meeting lasted about 40 minutes, ministry spokeswoman Lyudmila Derevyanko said.

Udaltsov told The Moscow Times after the talks that they were "very positive and constructive" and that Mutko had agreed that radical reforms were necessary to improve athletes' training and selection.

"The minister understands all that, but now everybody needs to join forces — society, lawmakers and the executive," Udaltsov said.

Senior pro-government lawmakers on Tuesday continued to fire shots at Mutko, Tyagachyov and other officials.

Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov, leader of the pro-Kremlin A Just Russia party and a close ally of Putin, said Tyagachyov should be held responsible for Russia's failings at the Olympics.

Medvedev's statement "means that the head of the Russian Olympic Committee and other high-ranking sports officials must resign," Mironov told Interfax.

He said the criticism directed against them was fair because "in sports the result is more important than the process."

He suggested that Tyagachyov was subordinate to him by pointing out that the committee chief is also a Federation Council senator, representing the Rostov region.

A woman who answered the phone at Tyagachyov's Federation Council office said that Tyagachyov would only return from Vancouver on Tuesday night.

Mironov also noted that Mutko "not long ago" headed the Federation Council's sports committee. Mutko was a senator for St. Petersburg between 2003 and 2008, when he became sports minister.

Anton Sikharulidze, a State Duma deputy for United Russia and chairman of the parliament's sports committee, complained that officials were sidestepping responsibility for the games. "Every sports official today is shifting the blame over preparation for the Olympics," he said, Interfax reported.

Meanwhile, figure skater Yevgeny Plushenko, who disappointed by winning silver, said he might give up his seat in the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly to devote more time to sports.

"I think I should lay lawmaking aside, leave it and pursue sports," Plushenko told reporters on his return to St. Petersburg, RIA-Novosti reported.

The 2006 Olympic champion has represented A Just Russia in the city's assembly since 2007, although he rarely attends parliamentary sessions. He introduced his first bill in October 2009, about 2 1/2 years after he was elected, the report said.

Plushenko made headlines in Vancouver for questioning the judges' decision after he finished second to Evan Lysacek of the United States in the men's competition.

"Quad is quad. If the Olympic champion doesn't know how to jump the quad, I don't know," Plushenko said afterward. "Now it's not men's figure skating, it's dancing. That's my point."

Billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov has warned against excessive criticism against the country's hockey team for its loss to Canada at the Vancouver Games, Bloomberg reported Tuesday.

“We shouldn’t ‘trash’ our team for one loss, as painful as it was,” Prokhorov said in an e-mailed statement Monday.

“Hockey here is on the rise. We shouldn’t tear it down with our own hands,” he added.

The hockey team’s 7-3 quarterfinal defeat to Canada, the first Olympic loss to its rival in 50 years, was high on the list of the country’s disappointments.

Prokhorov, Russia’s second-richest man with a fortune of $17.85 billion, according to Finans magazine, is president of the Russian Biathlon Union and has sponsored Moscow's CSKA hockey club.

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