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Olympic in the Russian Empire: Gold Medals of the Yusupovskiy Garden


USSR’s first participation at the Summer Olympics was in 1952, in Helsinki. In 1956 they premiered at the Winter Olympics in Italy’s Cortina D’Ampezzo.


Yuriy Zinchuk, pulse of the city host: “And many simple-mindedly believe that Russia’s Olympic history starts at the middle of the 20th century. As if there was no pre-revolution period. As if there was no legendary Olympics in London in 1908. Alexey Mikhalyov reports on how it all started and where Russia’s victories have their roots.

Its hard to find out now – why they needed it in the first place?

Sports at the beginning of the 20th century don’t bring any benefits. Athletes had no profitable contracts; fans were not stalking them, paparazzi journalists were nowhere to be seen. Sports clubs looked like hobby groups and were divided on class principle 

Anastasiya Konokhova, specialist at St. Petersburg Administration’s Archives: “It wasn’t set as a rule – accepting only the noble ones. But there were unwritten rules. And entrance fee played a big role”.

Meanwhile, the Emperor was a sports fan. Nikolay the 2nd was often seen at tennis courts and at bicycle trips. Members of his circle had to follow their boss. 

A tennis racquet was seen as a necessary item, something of an indulgence. Sport was the domain of the aristocracy, the military and the elite. Repin was an avid skier, Shalyapin was a keen skater, Tolstoy was a fan of the “gorodki” game. 

The Marsovo field is like a stadium: here servicemen were competing in bicycle races and did gymnastics in front of the emperor. But it didn’t make sports a wide-spread activity. 

Boris Mikhailov, professor of physical culture and sport at SPBGU: “On the one hand it was a sign of being among the elite. On the other hand, sport was not considered prestigious among the intelligentsia and professors” 

To its very first Olympics – and there were no winter games at that time – the Russian empire sent a group of enthusiasts. A team of 6 athletes: wrestlers, trackmen and one skater. It was him – Nikolay Panin-Kolomenkin – who won the first and only Gold for the Russian Empire. 

His sports life started at the Yusupovskiy Garden – the epicenter of the Olympic movement.

Boris Mikhailov, professor of physical culture and sport at SPBGU: “He won the gold and at the next Olympics he was already a shooter. Finished 4th at team championship”

He went down in history as a brilliant theoretic of skating, 12-time Russian champion in handgun shooting and 11-time champion in revolver shooting. As most of his colleagues, Panin was a multifunctional sportsman. 

He was successful in swimming, rowing, bicycle racing, skiing, football and hockey. But his main tricks were very complicated figures on ice. The ones which are hard to draw even by hand. Panin drew them with his skates, on ice. Olympics frontrunner – Swedish figure skater Ulrich Salkhov – had to withdraw from the competition, having failed to pose any rivalry. 

Sergey Pronin: “Salkhov was hysterical. That’s why Panin won easily”

1908 – the year of the London Olympics – was the time to say goodbye to slow-paced 19th century. Europe was obsessed with aviation. In America, Henry Ford created the first serial  automobile. A first Russian movie – about Stenka Razin – was filmed in the outskirts of St. Petersburg.

Ilya Mechnikov received the Nobel Prize in physiology. Rezerford  cracked the atom. The Tunguska meteorite drops from space – as a sign of a speedy century to come. 

The London Olympics fits the tempo. Some of the records set there were beaten only decades later. Tense rivalry – unseen before – is dominating the competition. Italian Dorando Pietri finishes the marathon almost unconscious. He fainted three times at the last few meters – and was carried beyond the finish line by a Daily Mail reporter – Arthur Conan Doyle, now known as the author of “Sherlock”.

He was disqualified, but bishop of Pennsylvania said: “Not the victory is important, but the participation”. Many would think De Coubertin said this  

For Russia, the London games was a sign to act. Tens of sports societies were created in St. Petersburg. The Krestovskiy Island was occupied by rowers and tennis players. The lakes – where residential areas are nowadays – were allocated for football tournaments. Aeroplanes were flying around the Kolomyagi. Auto races were popular in the summer, ice sailing races were popular in the winter. Georgiy Lurikh became the number one celebrity for glamorous magazines – real macho of his epoch. Preparations for the next Olympics – in Stockholm – were fast-tracked. 

Anastasiya Konokhova, specialist at St. Petersburg Administration’s Archives: “Its important that people realized it and made a step forward. And all of this was done voluntarily. No-one paid them for this. 

Olympic movement was made important for the country. It was headed by top state officials. Count Ribopyer was responsible for weightlifting. Georgiy Duperon is the founding father of the Russian football and basketball. And Alexey Butovskiy – his monument was first set up at the Kirov stadium, then taken down, until do-gooders from the Lesgaft university saved it.

Sergey Pronin: “They are not among our staff. – So this is a private initiative to rescue the monument to a hero? – We considered its cultural value and made steps”

Memory of the first Russian Olympians is kept averagely, really. There’s a myth that soviet sport came out of the blue, by itself. Its not often remembered, that Panin won competitions when he was an old man, he survived the blockade, worked as a military instructor and after the war worked at his institute – until his very last days.

Andrey Uvarov gathered his personal belongings. During these days, the exhibition has moved to Sochi for a short spell.

Andrey Uvarov, founder of the skating museum: “Nowadays not all remember even the likes of Rodnina, Pakhomova and Gorshkov”

Yagudin, Plushenko, Urmanov, Zamolodchikova, Turisheva, Kazankina, Kutz, Konovalenko, Bobrov, Panin. More than a hundred Olympic champions. They were united not only in their education, but – first and foremost – by the idea. The one which has lived for a century and withstood all hardships. 

Alexey Mikhalyov, reporter: “A historic landmark, a global event, usually has no birth place. Its impossible to determine where the October revolution came from – Moscow, St. Petersburg, Berlin or Zurich. But it’s a different story with Russia’s Olympic movement. We, fortunately, know the exact spot. From here – from the Yusupovskiy Garden, from its open winter rinks – came Russia’s first Olympic Gold medal. From here came the “gold” of Melbourne, Mexico, Tokyo, Rome, Cortina D’Ampezzo, Insbruk and Lake-Placid. And – eventually – what will make us ask this one important question in the next few weeks – how’s Sochi? How’s our team doing there?”