#8 - JRL 7014
FEATURE-Black-belt Putin takes Russian sports to new heights
By Gennady Fyodorov
MOSCOW, Jan 13 (Reuters) - Little more than a decade ago, tennis was considered a bourgeois sport in the communist Soviet Union but after Russia's first president, Boris Yeltsin, took up the game in 1992, its popularity skyrocketed.
"Yeltsin's picking up his tennis racket had a major impact on the sport in our country," said Russian tennis chief Shamil Tarpishchev.
"It gave tennis instant credibility so it became not just the game of an elite few but for people from all walks of life."
That sparked a huge tennis boom in the country -- not known for its tennis prowess in the old Soviet days -- and helped to produce top players such as Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Marat Safin and Anna Kournikova.
In 2002, Russia won tennis's greatest team prize when 20-year-old newcomer Mikhail Youzhny clinched his country's first Davis Cup title with a dramatic 3-2 win over holders France, beating Paul-Henri Mathieu in a decisive fifth rubber in last month's final in Paris.
Now Vladimir Putin has the top Kremlin job and Russian judo officials hope their sport will experience a boost similar to that enjoyed by tennis 10 years ago.
Putin, a former judo black belt and an avid downhill skier, has made sport fashionable again in a country where it was a major source of national pride during the Soviet era.
"It's a great chance for our sport," Sergei Soloveichik, vice president of the European Judo Union (EJU) and one of Russia's top judo officials, told Reuters in reference to Putin.
"It's an opportunity we can't afford to miss."
Soloveichik said Putin's arrival in the Kremlin in 2000 had had a huge impact on judo in Russia.
"In the past, most parents who brought their kids to judo classes had little knowledge about the sport but now they have seen the president on TV in his kimono and they know what judo is all about," he said.
"The number of children who have taken up the sport has also doubled in the last two years. But aside from that, we also made huge strides in improving the health of young Russians.
"Judo has become a part of the national fitness programme."
Although Russia have won a few world and Olympic medals in the past in the martial art, judo has never been one of the nation's major sports. But things could change fast.
Javara-Neva of St Petersburg, Russia's top judo club which was founded by Putin and some old school friends, have won the European Cup for the last two years.
Last year, heavyweight Alexander Mikhailin was voted Europe's best, becoming only the fifth athlete in judo history to win two world titles at a single championships in 2001.
"We have become one of Europe's leading nations in judo but I think what you see is only the beginning," Soloveichik said.
"You'll see a real change in four or five years from now."
A senior Russian skiing expert said Putin's regular outings down the slopes around Moscow, the Alps and the Urals had sparked renewed interest in his sport.
Putin even encourages his own cabinet members to take up skiing and presented Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov with a new pair of skis for his birthday.
"The sale of Alpine skiing equipment among young people has almost doubled in the last two years," Daniil Vinogradov, director of one of Moscow's skiing clubs, told Reuters.
The capital now offers several places, equipped with lifts and snow-making machines, to spend the day going down the slopes, including one appropriately called "the Moscow Alps," just a short ride from the city centre.
"We're just 12 minutes away from the Kremlin," said the Alps founder Grigory Arievich. "You get off the metro, walk 100 metres and you can put on your ski boots. I don't think any other major metropolis in the world can offer that."
Leonid Tyagachyov, president of the Russian Olympic Committee, thinks it will take a few years for the country's Alpine skiers to show their potential on the World Cup circuit.
"We could well be among the medal contenders come the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin," said Tyagachyov, a former Alpine skiing coach who became the country's Olympic chief in 2001 after giving skiing lessons to Putin.
The nationwide exposure has also helped to attract money into judo and skiing, from gas and oil giants such as Gazprom and LUKOIL.
Last month, the southern city of Rostov hosted the $250,000 President's Cup annual judo tournament, which boasted record prize money.
In the same week, Moscow held the President's Cup Alpine skiing event, while the following week, the Krasnaya Polyana ski resort near the Black Sea port of Sochi, hosted a Gazprom-sponsored giant slalom grand prix.
A modest Putin recently told students during his skiing trip to the Urals that his sporting achievements had been greatly exaggerated but Russian sports leaders say his example is key to the country's sporting renaissance.
"We don't know how lucky we are that our president is a sportsman," Tarpishchev said after Putin invited the victorious Russian Davis Cup team to the Kremlin last month.
"He understands our needs but most of all he understands that sport and athletes can be role models for our youth."