U.S.S.R. so good in its heydey, its play ‘wasn’t even hockey. It was like ballet or something’

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SOCHI, Russia – A feeling lingers in Russia. In the moments after Russia’s occasionally brilliant and often sloppy 5-2 victory over Slovenia Thursday, reporters peppered coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov with somewhat indignant questions that seemed just a little bit out of step with the moment. After all, this was only the Russians’ first game, a virtual warm-up against an over-matched team, and they did win pretty comfortably …

Bam: Why did the team decline so much in the second period?

Bam: If you could not stop the Slovenian line, all due respect, how can you stop the Americans?

Bam: What are you going to do about the struggling first line?

The Russians have not won a gold medal in hockey in more than 20 years. Officially, they have never even won a gold medal as Russia – their eight Olympic gold medals came under the banner of the Soviet Union and the Unified Team.

And still, a feeling lingers – a feeling that this sport is conclusively Russian, a feeling that the nation’s greatest traits come out in ballet, literature and the hockey rink, a feeling that no many how many years of heartbreak go by, Russia is supposed to win the hockey gold medal.

VIDEO: Watch U.S.-Russia (Saturday, 7:30 am ET) live online

There was, for all intents and purposes, no ice hockey in Russia before World War II ended. There were a few fledgling efforts to get hockey started, and these generally died before they were born. Instead, there was a popular ice sport called bandy, and it helped define a Russian style of hockey unlike anything that came before.

Bandy is a lot like soccer on ice – the outdoor rink is roughly the same size as a soccer pitch, there are 11 players on each team, the ball used is small and round and so on. Success in bandy depends on speed and precise passing and angles – there is not much player contact – so this was the perspective the Russians brought to ice hockey. The Canadians and Americans would rough you up. The Russians were too refined for that kind of game.

The father of Russian hockey was a fascinating man named Anatoli Tarasov who seems like he was sort of a Bear Bryant type of coach. In 1946, in the wake of more than 20 million Russian deaths during the war, there was an effort to start the first Russian hockey league. Legend goes that the first championship was basically formed based on a couple of old hockey rulebooks.

Tarasov was soon taking the lead in creating a Russian style of hockey. He wanted to make it different from the rough-and-tumble Canadian version of the game – he never did like those physical Canadians.

“A hockey player,” he once said, “must have the wisdom of a chess player, the accuracy of a sniper and the rhythm of a musician.” This was how he saw the game. As art. As expression. And to a startling degree, he was able to bring that vision to the ice. The Soviet team played in its first world championships in 1954 – just eight years after the sport essentially began. And the Soviets won it, going undefeated and crushing Canada 7-2 in the final game.

Tarasov had instilled his hockey vision just that quickly. He was forceful man, exuberant, irrepressible, exceedingly harsh one minute, positively jovial the next. His players loved him and despised him in equal measure (which made him different from the other giant of Russian hockey, Viktor Tikhonov, who was unanimously hated).

His love was for the strategies of the game, the angles, the methods of attack. He wanted his players to know each other so well that they would sense, instinctively, without looking, where everyone stood on the ice. He saw the beautiful geometry of the rink and was thrilled with a pass that seemed headed for nowhere only to have a teammate materialize and take the puck in full stride.

The Russian style of hockey awed the world, much in the same way that the Brazilian style of soccer or the American style of basketball did. The Soviet Union took its sports very seriously during the Cold War. Each gold medal, each world record, each triumph was seen as just that, a triumph of Soviet dominance. It was that way in space. It was that way in the arts. And it was particularly that way in hockey. The Soviets won 22 world championships and eight Olympic gold medals and, even more, won them with style and finesse and a flair that was exclusively Russian.

VIDEO: Introducing Russian hockey sensation Viktor Tikhonov

“When they got it going,” American Mike Eruzione would say, “it wasn’t even hockey. It was like ballet or something. You would be on the ice watching them just like the fans.”

It has been a long time since Russian hockey was like that. The breakup of the Soviet Union badly hurt the team. Between 2002 and 2010, Belarus, Latvia, Kazakhstan and Ukraine each fielded a hockey team that qualified for the Olympics. All four countries were part of the Soviet Union before the break.

And with the addition of NHL players to the Olympics, Russia’s ability to field a brilliantly honed team that can make art – the way Tarasov’s teams did – is basically at zero. Olympic hockey now is more about individual skill and the ability to make quick adjustments than it is about building a finely tuned team that moves as one.

But a feeling lingers in Russia. Also, there’s a tremendous amount of talent on this year’s Russian team. Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk probably go on most fans 10 best players in the world list. And with the advantage of home ice and some goaltending questions among the other favorites, there’s a feeling that this is the year for Russia to capture some old glory.

There really wasn’t a lot to learn from Thursday’s game. The Russians scored two goals in the first five minutes and peppered Slovenia goalie Robert Kristan with shot after shot in the first period. The Russians promptly lost their edge in the second period against a game Slovenian team. They regained their footing in the third.

VIDEO: U.S. ready for its showdown with Russia

It was the sort of game, frankly, where you probably saw what you expected to see, and what Russian journalists saw, predictably, was doom. You could almost hear the minds whirring away as they tried to figure out the conversion rate for a 5-2 win over Slovenia against Saturday’s game against the loaded U.S. team.

There’s so much pressure on this Russian hockey team. The Sochi Olympic cost $50 billion and countless hours of frustration to create … and for what? There are other gold medals, of course. Russia won the pair figure skating, for instance – Russia has an unprecedented record in pairs figure skating.

But, in Russia, realistically, there are no other gold medals.

“What would gold mean here?” Ovechkin was asked in what has already become the most talked about exchange of the Olympics. Ovechkin had clearly prepared his answer.

“It means gold only cost $50 billion,” he said and he smiled. It was a joke. Sort of.

Rory McIlroy says Olympic participation still ‘complicated,’ ‘difficult’

HAINAN ISLAND, CHINA - NOVEMBER 23:  Graeme McDowell (R) and Rory McIlroy of Ireland walk behind a flag bearer during the Opening Ceremony of the Omega Mission Hills World Cup at the Mission Hills' Blackstone Course on November 23, 2011 in Hainan Island, China.  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
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Rory McIlroy has said he was proven wrong about golf’s place in the Olympics, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s keen on the 2020 Tokyo Games after skipping Rio.

The four-time major champion was asked Wednesday if he had any plans to play in the next Olympics and called it a “tough question.”

“The participation in the Olympics for me, it’s just a little more complicated I feel for me than some other people from where I’m from and the whole politics of the thing,” McIlroy said. “It’s a difficult subject for me.”

McIlroy is from Northern Ireland, which does not have a separate delegation at the Olympics. That led to a scrutinized decision for McIlroy, who had to choose in 2014 between representing Great Britain and Ireland for golf’s Olympic return in Rio.

McIlroy opted for Ireland, which he represented at the World Cup of Golf in 2009 and 2011.

“I don’t know whether it’s been because the World Cup has been in Brazil and I’ve been thinking a couple of years down the line,” McIlroy reportedly said in June 2014. “Thinking about all the times that I played as an amateur for Ireland and as a boy and everything, I think for me it’s the right decision to play for Ireland in 2016.”

Golf’s place in the Olympics is not guaranteed beyond 2020, so Tokyo may be McIlroy’s last opportunity.

“Four years’ time is a long ways away, so we’ll see what happens,” McIlroy said Wednesday. “Right now, I’ll concentrate on the 16 majors that we have between now and then and try to get a few more of those and go from there.”

MORE: Tim Finchem eyes Olympic golf change in 2020

Rita Jeptoo stripped of Boston Marathon win, ban extended

BOSTON, MA - APRIL 21:  Rita Jeptoo of Kenya crosses the finish line to win the 118th Boston Marathon on April 21, 2014 in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
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Kenyan Rita Jeptoo‘s doping ban has been doubled, to October 30, 2018, and her 2014 Boston and Chicago Marathon wins were stripped, the Court of Arbitration for Sport said Wednesday.

Jeptoo repeated as Boston Marathon winner in 2014, one year after twin bombings rocked the world’s oldest annual 26.2-mile race, in a women’s course record 2:18:57.

Jeptoo, 35, tested positive for EPO in an out-of-competition sample in Kenya on Sept. 25, 2014, three weeks before she won her second straight Chicago Marathon.

Athletics Kenya handed Jeptoo a backdated two-year suspension in January 2015, a punishment that was appealed by the IAAF, which sought a longer ban. Jeptoo also appealed the ban but later withdrew her motion.

“In coming to its decision, the Panel found to its comfortable satisfaction that the athlete used rEPO over a period of time to enhance performance,” the court said in a press release Wednesday. “The undisputed source of the rEPO found in her sample of 25 September 2014 was an injection given to her by a doctor. The athlete provided various differing accounts of the circumstances leading up to the injection and also regarding her relationship with that doctor.

“According to the applicable rules, the minimum period of ineligibility in this situation is a sanction of two years but can be increased to up to four years in the case of aggravating circumstances. The Panel is comfortably satisfied that there are aggravating circumstances in the case at hand as it was obvious to the Panel that the athlete used rEPO as part of a scheme or plan. The evidence for this includes inter alia her long relationship with the doctor in question, her multiple visits to see him, that her rEPO use was consistent with her competition calendar, that she hid the visits to the doctor in question from her manager and coach, as well as her deceptive and obstructive conduct throughout the proceedings. Weighing all the evidence, the Panel is comfortably satisfied that the circumstances warrant a period of ineligibility of four years.”

Ethiopians Buzunesh Deba and Mare Dibaba stand to be upgraded from second to first in the 2014 Boston and Chicago Marathons, respectively. Deba’s time of 2:19:59 stands to be the new Boston women’s course record.

Jeptoo also won the Boston Marathon in 2006.

VIDEO: Kenenisa Bekele misses marathon world record by 6 seconds