Back in the hunt for Olympic gold: Russia’s 10 best medal hopes for Rio 2016 | Alec Luhn

Without their track and field athletes, the spotlight will fall on a dwindling band of competitors in other sports to maintain the country’s sporting traditions

Since Russia announced an Olympic team of 367 athletes on Wednesday, all of its 68 track and field athletes have been banned from competing in Rio next month.

The list continues to shrink as sport federations vet athletes on the International Olympic Committee’s orders: no Russian competitor who has been banned for performance-enhancing drug use in the past or was mentioned in the world anti-doping agency’s reports on state-sponsored doping can participate. On Monday, swimming’s governing body, Fina, banned seven Russian swimmers from the Games.

Russia’s medal count is sure to suffer as a result, and those athletes who do go will be under heavy pressure to uphold their country’s honour, according to Pavel Kopachyov, Olympics editor for “There will be extra expectations. It will be psychologically difficult for each that goes,” he said.

But Russia has long been a sports powerhouse, coming third in the medal table at the London Olympics, and could still take several golds in Rio. Here are the 10 strongest contenders, although there’s no guarantee they will all make the Games.

Anastasia Fesikova

So far, swimming has been hit harder than any Russian sport besides track and field. Yuliya Efimova, who won the bronze in the 200m breaststroke in 2012, is out having tested positive for banned substances in the past, as is her fellow London bronze medallist Vladimir Morozov, who appeared in the McLaren report. Russia will now have to pin its swimming hopes on 26-year-old Anastasia Fesikova (formerly Anastasia Zueva), who won silver in the 200m backstroke in London. With two Olympics under her belt, Fesikova missed much of 2014 after she married a fellow swimmer Sergei Fesikov, who won bronze in the 4x100m freestyle in 2012, and gave birth to their son. She has since returned to form, winning the 100-metre backstroke at the Mare Nostrum meet in France last month. Fekisova has also been the ceremonial leader of the Russia swimming team since May, when she was unanimously voted captain.

Natalya Ishchenko and Svetlana Romashina

In its statement on Friday, Fina said Russian synchronised swimmers, divers and water polo players were not implicated in the McLaren report, clearing them for Rio. This is good news for Russia, who have won every Olympics gold medal in synchronised swimming since 2000. The duo of Natalya Ishchenko, 30, and Svetlana Romashina, 26, won gold in London and are looking to repeat this result in Rio, which Ishchenko has said will be her last. Like Fesikova, Ishchenko returned to the sport after giving birth to a son in 2013, and there is little doubt in her abilities as a competitor. She has won world championship medals 19 times. She and Romashina are not afraid to take risks, winning the European Cup in 2015 with routines that featured them as Gypsies and aliens.

Yana Kudryavtseva

Another sport Russia has long dominated is rhythmic gymnastics, which has a strong tradition stretching back to Soviet days. As with synchronised swimming, Russia have won every Olympic gold since 2000. At 18, Yana Kudryavtseva has already broken several records, becoming the youngest woman ever to win the world championships all-around title in 2013 at age 15. She has now won it three years in a row. If she has recovered from the ankle injury that troubled her in 2015 and early 2016, she will be hard to beat for the gold medal, with the most obvious challenge coming from her team-mate Margarita Mamun.

Tagir Khaibulaev

With Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, a lifelong practitioner and a holder of the rare eighth dan, it’s little wonder that judo is an important sport in Russia. Tagir Khaibulaev, 31, hails from Dagestan near the Caucasus mountains, where martial arts like judo are accorded even more prestige. After Khaibulaev won the gold medal in the 100kg class at the 2012 Olympics, Putin was on hand to congratulate him. He has since been less successful, winning bronze at the Judo Grand Prix in South Korea last year, but all eyes will be on him again for these Olympics. Although the International Judo Federation has not yet approved the Russia team, its president, Marius Vizer, this week said Russia is “playing a great role in the history of our sport” and spoke out against banning the country.

Islambek Albiev

Like Khaibulaev, Islambek Albiev, 27, hails from the Caucasus region, specifically Chechnya, where wrestling is a traditional sport and martial arts are hugely popular. At the Beijing Olympics in 2008 he became the youngest ever gold medallist in Greco-Roman wrestling, winning the praises of the Chechnyan leader Ramzan Kadyrov, $500,000 in prize money and a flat in the regional capital. He failed to qualify for the 2012 Olympics, but will try to make a comeback at next month’s Games. Albiev will show if he’s ready to take up the mantle of three-time gold medallist Alexander “The Bear” Karelin, widely regarded as one of the best Greco-Roman wrestlers of all time.

Sofiya Velikaya

The Olympic story of the sabre fencer Sofiya Velikaya, 31, has so far been one of heartbreakingly close finishes. She lost by a single point to finish fourth at the 2008 Beijing Games, but struck silver in 2012, losing in the final to South Korea’s Kim Ji-yeon. Velikaya has been more successful at the world championships, winning an impressive seven gold medals. After a break in her career following the London Olympics, in 2014 she picked up where she left off and won two golds at the world fencing championships in Moscow last year. She will likely clash again with her great rival Olha Kharlan from Ukraine at these Olympics.

Misha Aloyan

A southpaw with an unusual back-story, the flyweight boxer Misha Aloyan, 27, was born in Armenia to a Kurdish Yazidi family and started boxing when his family moved to Russia in 1997. He has won gold twice at the world championships and has a handful of Russian titles, but so far the ultimate prize of an Olympic gold has eluded him. The world champion in 2012, he entered the London Olympics as the top seed but lost to Mongolia’s Tugstsogt Nyambayar in the semi-final and had to settle for bronze. “Aloyan is very strong and he wasn’t lucky at last Olympics, so he’ll be angry,” Kopachyov said.

Aleksander Lesun

Modern pentathlon is a varied sport that demands mastery of swimming, fencing, riding, shooting and running. Aleksander Lesun, 28, started as a swimmer but moved on to train in the pentathlon, and was Russia’s top prospect in 2012. He failed to get to the podium, but has since won two world championship golds – bringing his total to four – and will be looking for his first Olympic medal in Rio. He recently told the Guardian he was confident he would qualify for Rio: “I’m confident in myself and my [doping] samples, you can retest all you want, I know you won’t find anything.”

Ekaterina Makarova and Yelena Vesnina

After the loss of Maria Sharapova, who was banned for two years in June for meldonium use, a weakened tennis team has been confirmed for Rio. Ekaterina Makarova, 28, was only added as a singles competitor after Sharapova’s exit. But she played at the 2012 Olympics and is already an accomplished doubles player. She and Elena Vesnina, 29, won the French Open doubles in 2013 and the US Open version in 2014.

Denis Dmitriev

Since the cyclists Ilnur Zakarin and Olga Zabelinskaya have been previously banned for doping, putting them out of the Rio Games, Russia will have to turn to track cycling for medals on two wheels. Denis Dmitriev, 30, has won the sprint event at the European track cycling championships three times. He has competed in two Olympics but did not win a medal. This year he won bronze at the world championships, where gold has perennially escaped him. He will have to step up for a medal in Rio, but remains Russia’s best hope in this sport.

And prospects lost …

Athletes who would be medal hopes if not for the doping scandal include Yelena Isinbaeva (pole vault), Yuliya Efimova (swimming), Anastasia Krapivina (open-water swimming), Alexei Lovchev (weightlifting), Sergei Fedorovtsev (rowing), Ilnur Zakarin (cycling) and Olga Zabelinskaya (cycling).


Alec Luhn in Moscow

The GuardianTramp

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