Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Fedor Carries the Olympic Torch

Sit on that, Sean Hannity.

Fedor Carries Olympic Torch in St. Petersburg
By Evgeni Kogan

[4/9/2008] In a traditional lead-up to the Beijing Olympics, the Olympic torch touched down in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Saturday before heading off to England and France, continuing its world tour.

The torch was taken along a 12-mile route through the wide streets and boulevards of the historical river city by a relay of 80 Russian sporting champions, cultural icons and national heroes.

After starting at the Soviet World War II memorial, it passed Petropavlovsk Fortress and St. Isaac's Cathedral before finally arriving at the Palace Square in front of the State Hermitage Museum -- the setting for the beginning of the 1918 Communist Revolution.

The first carrier of the torch was Galina Zybina, 77, an Olympic shot put gold medalist at the 1952 Games, the first year that the Soviet Union took part in the competition. Zybina was a survivor of the 900-day German blockade of the city during World War II, during which approximately 2 million of the residents died from a lack of food and the harsh Russian winters.

The ceremony to light the torch was conducted by city governor Valentina Matvienko, flanked by soldiers in period uniforms and serenaded by a military orchestra. Zybina's starting of the relay was said to be "deeply symbolic."

Former Pride heavyweight champion Fedor Emelianenko (Pictures) also carried the torch, and for the sport of mixed martial arts in Russia, it is perhaps also deeply symbolic that he was asked to participate.

The public profile of MMA has been rising steadily throughout the last 10 years, particularly in St. Petersburg due to the city being a base for the Red Devil Club and a continuing host of the M-1 Mixfight events.

Nationalism is a very important part of the Russian culture and psyche. Though its uptake of popular culture is on par with any Western country, Russia still holds in very high regard its national victories. The whole country, young and old, celebrates a variety of war and peacetime achievements.

Under a bright blue spring sky, Fedor, wearing an official Beijing Olympics training shirt and sporting the number 42, carried the torch alongside such national heroes as Zybina, Olympic figure skater Evgeni Plushenko, St. Petersburg soccer star Andrei Arshavin and the first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova.

"The Olympics is the pinnacle of sporting achievement, and the torch is the game's symbol," said Emelianenko, who on Tuesday told he'll fight Tim Sylvia (Pictures) this July. "It's therefore a treasure. I was very honored to be asked to participate and carry the torch for my part of its journey with such accomplished company, including a great number of world-class athletes, whom I hold in very high regard."

The carriers in each country were chosen by each nation's Olympic Committee representatives along with local authorities. The 31-year-old Emelianko's participation is perhaps the strongest sign yet of the sporting establishment's acceptance of MMA.

This is particularly interesting in Russia, where MMA does not have the broad audience it enjoys in the United States or Japan. That's not to say it is unknown. There is "Boets," a television channel dedicated to the fighting arts and, famously, Russian President Vladimir Putin is a big fan. However there aren't significant gate numbers, events are few and far between and pay-per-view does not exist.

This isn't only the case with MMA. All Russian professional sports have a long way to go before they are commercialized to the level that the United States enjoys.

Hence MMA in Russia has not forced itself on mainstream sporting consciousness purely through its economic might and the media presence that follows it. It has quietly done its own thing, appealing to the country's grass roots combat sports fans, slowly gaining acceptance and a following.

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