Standard-bearer of the Russian national team Alexander Zubkov (foreground) during the parade of athletes and members of national delegations at the opening ceremony of the XXII Olympic Winter Games in Sochi. Source: RIA Novosti
Alexander Yerastov, special to RBTH
Bobsled pilot Alexander Zubkov is one of Russia's most renowned athletes. He is a World champion, a four-time European champion, the holder of seven World Cups, a silver Olympic medal from the 2006 Turin Games and a bronze from the 2010 Vancouver Games. All Zubkov needs now to complete his collection of trophies is an Olympic gold medal.
"There is always fear," said Zubkov, 39, who is participating in his fifth Olympics. "If you run out of fear you may as well quit bobsledding. If you are not getting any more adrenaline, if you feel completely calm at the starting line, you won't be able to achieve anything."
Prior to taking up bobsledding, Zubkov did the luge. It was as a luger that he became a junior World champion and took part in the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, where he came 20th. Then someone suggested that he try the bobsled.
"I was captivated immediately. It was like driving a heavy car." Zubkov said that the most difficult part of starting out in bobsled was leaving top-level competition in one sport and starting from scratch in a different one: "Nobody knew me in bobsledding!" he recalled.
But Zubkov made himself known very quickly. He won the World Championship in 2011 and today, his competitors consider Zubkov their most dangerous rival. U.S. bobsledder Steven Holcomb said on the eve of the Sochi Games: "Zubkov will be very strong on home ice. This is an important advantage. We have to keep up and try to stay on top."
Zubkov is going strong ahead of the Olympics. He took two silvers and a bronze at the most recent World Cup, even though the Russian crews were focused on trying out various tactical and technical innovations rather than getting the best results, a strategy proposed by the team's head coach Pierre Lueders to prepare for Sochi.
It stands to reason that Zubkov knows the home track in Sochi well, although he says performing on home ice implies additional responsibilities. Experts believe the Sochi track's layout is playing into Zubkov's hands. The slope is relatively gentle, there are few sharp turns, increasing the significance of the initial push – exactly the phase in which Zubkov's crew is considered to be one of the best in the world.
After the 2010 Olympics, a scandal broke out in the Russian Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation. "The athletes were treated like slaves in the run-up to the Games," they wrote in an open letter to the Russian president, which Zubkov signed. That letter did nothing to change the federation's approach, so Zubkov announced that he was quitting. He accepted an invitation from the administration of the Irkutsk to become their minister of sports. But Zubkov did not last long riding a desk. Soon thereafter, following considerable changes within the Federation of Bobsleigh and Skeleton, he decided to resume his sporting career. "I am glad to be coming back," Zubkov said. "I am doing this with the Sochi Olympics in mind."
Zubkov believes the greatest rivalry in bobsled at Sochi will be between the Russian and German teams. "Since I am the Germans' most inveterate rival, they know me well there," he said, adding: "We also expect serious competition from Switzerland, Canada, the U.S., and Latvia."